Why Goalkeepers And Defenders Don't Win The Ballon D'Or

Are we undervaluing the skill and art of 'not' scoring goals?

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Of the 23 players longlisted for the FIFA Ballon D’Or back in October, only four could be described as out and out defenders.

Philipp Lahm of Bayern Munich (as creative as defenders get and playing this year in midfield), his club-mate, goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, Sergio Ramos and Chelsea's goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

In fact, since the award for the world’s best player began back in 1956, only four defensive players have won it – Franz Beckenbauer, Matthias Sammer, Lev Yashin (the only goalkeeper) and Fabio Cannavaro, who had to captain Italy to an unlikely World Cup win to be recognised.

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Against this historical bias, it was a big surprise to see Bayern Munich goalkeeper Manuel Neuer joining Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on the three-man shortlist. Is this finally a sign that FIFA is recognising the art of goal stopping? Or is he just a token nod, the exception that proves the rule?

The question that the ballon d'or brings up is whether all of us - the people who watch, report on and even run football - are guilty of completely undervaluing the defensive side of the game?

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Are we so enamoured - obsessed even - by attack and goals that we ignore the importance of its counterbalance?

The short answer is yes. The goal, after all, is why we watch in the first place and the relative rarity of its occurrence in a football match is in many ways what makes it different from the higher scoring team sports like basketball and rugby.

The whole framework of how we watch football supports this. The sport can almost be split into the good guys, the artists - those trying to create, to score, to win – and the defenders, those trying to negate, block, and not lose.

We remember goals, moves, flicks and finishes. Rarely do we look back misty-eyed at a defensive hoof that may or may not have prevented a goal.

It’s why huge transfer fees are paid for goalscorers and creators and clubs don’t sell as many shirts for its full-backs as its centre-forwards.

In the excellent book The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong, authors Chris Anderson and David Sally outline these reasons but have also gone one further in analysing the phenomenon.

They analysed a decade of Premier League matches to determine the relative value of goals and clean sheets in terms of picking up league points.

The conclusion turns our understanding of football on its head. “It turns out that clean sheets on average produce almost 2.5 points per match. Compared to scoring a goal, which on average earns a team about one point per match, not conceding is more than twice as valuable.”

In other words: "Goals that don’t happen are even more important than goals that do".

So why does everyone in football overlook this? Part of it is simple psychology. “Attacking has one best outcome: a goal. But defending is quite the opposite: there, the best outcome is a goal that is not conceded, an event that does not actually happen.”

It explains why the human brain prefers the immediate pleasure of a goal to a vaguely defined non-negative. It's hard to stand up and cheer and shout for a non-event.

The more fundamental argument offered by the authors though is that defence is simply not understood by those who analyse and assess football: “We strongly suspect that goalkeepers and defenders are less likely to become managers of the world’s top clubs simply because defence is neither well understood nor highly valued.”

Despite the amount of money and analysis and coverage in football, everyone involved is still swayed like dizzy fans by the power of the goal. As the authors put it, 'forwards are loved, defenders are respected' and there's little here to make us think that will change anytime soon.

Buy 'The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong', by Chris Anderson and David Sally