The Premier League's best CB duo

An analysis of the Premier League's best defensive partnerships & their implications on the title race 🧐

From Tony Adams and Martin Keown, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, to John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, having a rock-solid center back partnership has long been the foundation of title-winning sides. But in a season where there have been more goals than ever before in the Premier League, having a strong CB pairing is more important than ever, and we’re seeing that play out in the table. 📈

Each team in the title race – Arsenal, Liverpool, and Man City – has at least one CB pairing that boasts all of the modern-day attributes of a successful defensive partnership.

  • First, there’s the aggressor. The heart of the team, who gets his head on every ball in the box and dives into every challenge as if the World Cup were on the line (Gabriel, Konaté, Dias).

  • Then, there’s Mr. Cool. The player who dictates tempo from the back and calmly gets his team out of pressure with tidy footwork usually reserved for short Portuguese players named “João” (Saliba, Van Dijk, Stones).

With only seven weeks left in the season, these partnerships will be under the microscope more than ever, and their play could very well determine who wins the title come May.

So who’s got the advantage?

New kids on the block

Gabriel and William Saliba have been superb for Arsenal this season. In just their second season starting together, the pair have been the linchpin of the league’s best defense in terms of goals allowed (24), xGA per game (0.76), and shots on target per 90 minutes (0.9). If the Emirates wasn’t so immaculately groomed, then David Raya would literally be picking daisies in goal. 🌼 

Aside from two games at the beginning of the season when Gabriel was inexplicably dropped, the pair have played every minute together this season, with the joint-most starts (27) of any duo in the league.

This consistency has allowed Mikel Arteta’s side to take risks further up the pitch. The Gunners have overwhelmed opponents with their high press this season, occupying a high line that at times has bordered on insanity.

Gabriel and Saliba contribute extensively on set-pieces too. The Gunners have more set-piece goals than any team in the Prem this season with 18 (excluding pens). Many of those have come from the head of Gabriel, who leads the league in goals as a defender with four. 🇧🇷 

For all the credit new set-piece coach Nicolas Jover has gotten, his job is made a lot easier with the Brazilian’s towering presence. How on Earth do you stop this?

While Arsenal’s duo has the advantage in team defensive statistics, they’re only the fourth-highest rated CB duo in the league according to WhoScored?

Liverpool have the highest rated CB duo

…with Virgil Van Dijk and Ibrahima Konaté recording an average match rating of 7.10 this season.

Despite being 32 years old, Van Dijk has recaptured his pre-injury form of a few seasons ago, and is the highest-rated defender in the Premier League with a 7.21. He and Konaté have formed a solid partnership that has allowed the second-fewest goals in the league (30), and have the Reds in the thick of the title race despite having an injury record that rivals a summer camp after the counselors play the campers in dodgeball.

The only knock against the Reds’ partnership is that they’ve been on the pitch less than duos from other teams.

  • Van Dijk and Konaté have only played together in 15 league games this season.

  • Liverpool actually have a better win percentage when Jarrell Quansah fills in for Konaté, winning 71% of games when the 21-year-old plays alongside Van Dijk.

The dark horses

If consistency is key, then the league’s best defensive duo might be Everton’s James Tarkowski and Jarrad Branthwaite.

No, really. 🤔 

The duo have started the joint-most games (27) of any partnership in the league, with Tarkowski playing every minute this season and Branthwaite only sitting out three games. The 21-year-old has been a revelation for the Toffees back line, which has conceded the fourth-fewest goals in the league with 42 and has the second-highest average match rating in the league behind their Merseyside rivals.

My strikers have done so well but he always gets back. Sometimes his teammates get beaten, but he reads the moment to go and cover. It’s a side of the game that he has that is really promising for the future.

Vincent Kompany on Branthwaite after Everton beat Burnley 1-0 on Saturday

Branthwaite has been heavily linked with a potential transfer to Man United this summer, which comes as no surprise as he’s been consistently the best performer on an otherwise dreadful Everton side. Despite holding opponents to only 1.35 goals per 90 minutes, the Toffees are in 15th place, thanks to their anemic attack (32 GF) and a ten-point deduction for breaches of PSR.

Branthwaite has an estimated transfer value of €30 million

While Branthwaite is still raw and Tarkowski is slow as molasses, their consistency this season has been instrumental in keeping the Toffees afloat, and earns them rightful consideration for being considered among the league’s best CB duos.

The proof is in the pudding: The truth is that none of these duos will unanimously be considered better than any pairing Pep Guardiola trots out for Man City. Between Rúben Dias, John Stones, Manuel Akanji, and even Joško Gvardiol, the defending champions have an embarrassment of riches at CB, and it’ll take another side winning the title to usurp them.