Feature

Defenders who can be like a new signing in 2024/25

By Adrian Clarke 7 Jul 2024
Timber, Shaw, James, Henry

Adrian Clarke looks at players who could have a big impact after missing most of last season

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Ahead of the start of the season, Adrian Clarke looks at the players who missed the majority of the last campaign and can have a big impact in 2024/25.

Defenders
Jurrien Timber (Arsenal)

Mikel Arteta never settled on a regular left-back last season, but that spot in Arsenal’s starting XI should have Timber’s name on it for 2024/25.

The versatile Netherlands international was outstanding in pre-season last summer, displaying solid defensive skills and top-class distribution from an inverted full-back position.

An Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury just 50 minutes into his Premier League debut wrecked his campaign, with the Dutchman only returning for the last 21 minutes on the final day of the season.

William Saliba, Gabriel and Ben White all avoided serious injuries, missing just three matches between them. If Arsenal aren't as fortunate in that regard this time around, Timber will prove to be invaluable to his manager.

The 23-year-old is comfortable operating in any position across the backline, and can cover for any of that outstanding trio.

Tyrone Mings (Aston Villa)

Unai Emery will be delighted to welcome centre-back Mings back into the fold as Aston Villa juggle a busy domestic and European schedule in 2024/25.

He may not find it easy to dislodge impressive left-footed centre-half Pau Torres, but Mings' dominance in the air, reading of the game, and ability to cover at left-back is sure to put him in contention for game time.

Mings featured for just 31 minutes of 2023/24 after injuring his ACL against Newcastle United in the opening weekend of 2023/24, but some of his numbers from the previous campaign compare favourably with those who played so well in Villa’s superb fourth-placed finish.

Villa defenders per 90
Player Clearances Headed clearances  Interceptions Aerials won
Diego Carlos 3.88 1.74 0.65 1.09
Clement Lenglet 3.66 2.1 0.55 1.17
Pau Torres 2.1 1.1 0.51 0.84
Ezri Konsa 1.99 0.85 0.82 0.88
Tyrone Mings (22/23) 4.51 2.54 1.54 1.77

In moments where they are put under pressure and asked to defend their own penalty area, Mings is arguably Villa’s best defender.

Max Aarons (Bournemouth)

Whenever he was available, AFC Bournemouth right-back Aarons consistently featured for Andoni Iraola, so he could be a key man in 2024/25. The former Norwich City star’s sense of adventure is well suited to the Spaniard’s positive tactical mindset.

Unfortunately, Aarons suffered hamstring issues during his debut campaign on the south coast, meaning he missed 18 Premier League matches during two prolonged spells on the sidelines.

He injects forward momentum by looking to take his opponents on, and as shown below, his ball-winning qualities also outshone right-back rival Adam Smith last season.

Max Aarons v Adam Smith
Valentin Barco (Brighton)

After joining from Boca Juniors in January, Argentina Under-20 star Barco had limited game time at Brighton & Hove Albion, but the gifted left-back has enormous scope for development this season.

The 19-year-old is comfortable on the ball, is able to invert into central areas and can push on down the wing. He has all the tools to have a bright future.

His second-half cameo against Chelsea in Brighton’s penultimate match of the season was extremely impressive.

Barco was everywhere, always looking to switch play or feed crosses into the area, and enjoyed 70 touches in only 45 minutes.

Do not be surprised if new head coach Fabian Hurzeler uses him in several positions during 2024/25.

player_- full pitch visualisation - 16x9 (5)
Rico Henry (Brentford)

A number of factors were likely to blame for Brentford’s points tally dropping from 59 to 39 last season - and the absence of left-back Henry was certainly one of those.

The 26-year-old always looks to put his foot in for a challenge and is a bundle of energy. His ACL injury last September was a hammer blow for Thomas Frank. The balance Henry supplied from the left was difficult to replace in the remaining 33 matches.

In 2022/23, when Henry made 37 starts, the Bees kept 12 clean sheets and restricted opponents to one goal or fewer in 26 contests.

In the 33 matches he missed, Brentford produced just six shutouts, while a maximum of one goal was leaked in 16 contests.

Aaron Hickey (Brentford)

Frank will be thrilled to have Scotland international Hickey available again, following a serious hamstring injury that has kept him out since the end of October.

The combative 22-year-old is equally comfortable as a right or left-back, so when he is fully fit Hickey is sure to provide his manager with useful tactical options.

Brentford were averaging 1.33 points per match (ppm) until Hickey picked up his muscle problem, and in the remaining 29 Premier League matches they could not replicate that level, dipping to 0.93 ppm.

Given his versatility, reliability and being young enough to improve, the 2024/25 campaign should see Hickey revive his top-flight career.

Wesley Fofana (Chelsea)

Central defender Fofana will feel like a new signing at Stamford Bridge when he returns from a long-term ACL injury this summer.

The 23-year-old Frenchman joined from Leicester City in August 2022 but has made just 12 Premier League starts in two seasons.

Chelsea failed to settle on a regular centre-back partnership last season, with none of the five players they used able to deliver consistent displays.

The Blues conceded two or more goals in 20 of their 38 matches, so they will need Fofana’s intelligence and pace to help them improve that record.

Thiago Silva’s departure paves the way for his comeback, and his quality on the ball will suit Enzo Maresca’s style of play.

During 2022/23, Fofana’s pass accuracy was an impressive 89.8 per cent, a strength that will adhere him to the new head coach.

Reece James (Chelsea)

A recurring hamstring problem means James has been named in Chelsea’s starting XI in just a quarter of Chelsea’s Premier League matches since the start of 2022/23.

The right-back now has stiff competition due to the form of Malo Gusto, but when fit and available, James has a proven track record of delivering terrific passes into the danger zone.

James' attacking stats per 90 last three seasons
Statistic 2021/2022 2022/23 2023/24
Open-play crosses 3.62 4.2 5.34
Chelsea rank 2nd 2nd 1st
Succ. open-play crosses 0.82 0.87 1.5
Chelsea rank 1st 2nd 1st
Passes played into box 7.05 6.58 5.13
Chelsea rank 3rd 2nd 4th

During his 10 appearances last season (five from the bench) James averaged over five open-play crosses per 90 minutes, which is over two more than Gusto. No one at Stamford Bridge came close to delivering 1.5 successful crosses a game either.

The service he will provide for Chelsea’s strikers could be a game changer once he has served his early season suspension.

Lisandro Martinez (Man Utd)

Since the turn of the year Manchester United are unbeaten in eight matches in all competitions when Martinez has started. That run features six wins, including a famous FA Cup final triumph against Manchester City.

This more than respectable record will excite United supporters, as well as head coach Erik ten Hag, who sorely missed the leadership and nous of his Argentinian defender last season.

Martinez will be eager to shine in 2024/25 now that he has recovered from the foot, knee and calf problems which have blighted him since April 2023, and restricted him to just eight Premier League starts last season.

His experience and aggression should make a Man Utd side that conceded a record 58 league goals last season, much harder to breach.

Luke Shaw (Man Utd)

Man Utd are a far more balanced side when Shaw occupies the left-back spot in their starting XI. After missing 26 of 38 Premier League matches last season, Diogo Dalot, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Sergio Reguilon, Victor Lindelof and Sofyan Amrabat effectively had to job share and rarely offered the same qualities as the 28-year-old.

Bruno Fernandes is the only team-mate who supplies more chances from accurate set-pieces than Shaw (0.65 per 90 minutes) so his return should improve United's poor return of just nine set-play goals last season too.

The presence of Shaw speeds up United’s build-up play down that flank, an area of the field where they missed his quality deliveries into the area.

When Shaw played last season the Red Devils picked up more points, so they will be desperately hoping he stays fit in 2024/25.

Man Utd with and without Shaw 2023/24
Statistic With Shaw Without Shaw
Matches 12 26
Wins 7 11
Draws 1 5
Losses 4 10
Ave. points 1.83 1.46
Win ratio (%) 58.3 42.3
Tyrell Malacia (Man Utd)

Man Utd supporters have not seen Malacia in action since May 2023, but hopes are high that the Dutch left-back will be fit enough to participate in pre-season.

Surgery on a knee injury led to complications that have slowed down the 24-year-old’s rehab, but when he does return it will be a real bonus for Ten Hag.

He is likely to be Shaw’s understudy, but Malacia is a more aggressive defensive left-back than the former.

On a per 90 minutes basis, he made more interceptions than any other Man Utd player in 2022/23, and won more tackles than any of the club’s other defenders.

For the balance of their squad, Malacia’s availability will be a real positive.

Sven Botman (Newcastle)

Newcastle sorely missed Botman last season, but the Dutch defender is closing in on a comeback early on in 2024/25.

The imposing but immaculate centre-back was a rock at the heart of the Magpies defence when they conceded just 33 Premier League goals in 2022/23.

Last season that figure almost doubled to 62 and the Dutchman’s damaged ACL was certainly a factor in that downturn.

Botman improves Newcastle in and out of possession given how strong he is in the air inside both boxes, mobile for a player of his size, and a superb short or long-range passer. His impending return will solidify them greatly.

Nick Pope must be mentioned too after he missed five months of the campaign with a shoulder injury which limited him to only 15 league starts.

Despite making seven fewer starts than Martin Dubravka, who perfomed well in Pope's absence, He did amass one extra clean sheet than the Slovakian, with five.

In addition, Pope’s higher starting positions allowed him sweep up a greater number of long balls played over the top of Newcastle's back four. This is a key ingredient when they press opponents and leave a high line.

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