Football Features

Premier League’s top 10 defensive assist kings (and their defensive ability rated)

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 20:15, 16 October 2021 | Updated: 19:22, 20 November 2021

Football has become increasingly universal, meaning old stereotypes no longer hold.

One pertinent example is how defenders are now a credible threat in the opposition half, as well as being a presence in their own.

It’s no longer shocking to see regular attacking contributions being made by members of the backline and, with certain managers embracing attack, we are seeing full-backs effectively become auxiliary wingers.

This is explicitly displayed when glancing over the Premier League’s most creative defenders; the top 10 — according to the league’s official website — either play at right or left back.

In fact, given their respective conversion from a forward role at Old Trafford, we choose to omit both Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia as they never exclusively played in defence throughout their careers. To make things even more interesting, we are going to give the final a defensive rating out of 10.

Just three current stars make the cut, with Kyle Walker and Aaron Cresswell missing out for now.

10. Ashley Cole

Club(s): Arsenal, Chelsea

Premier League appearances: 385

Defensive ability: 9/10

Assists: 31

Ashley Cole was on course to becoming an immortal at Arsenal given his stature as one of the world’s leading full-backs as well as being homegrown, but that all changed when he decided to swap north London for west.

“A regret of my career. He left on a misunderstanding between his agent and the club,” Arsène Wenger said in Invincible (a book on the Gunners unbeaten 2002/03 season). “A fantastic fighter as well. The rest of his career has shown how big a player he is. It should have been here.”

It was at Chelsea that Cole secured more honours as well as enhancing his reputation when it came to making last-ditch goal-line clearances.

9. Dan Petrescu

Club(s): Sheffield Wednesday, Chelsea, Bradford, Southampton

Premier League appearances: 215

Defensive ability: 6/10

Assists: 33

Dan Petrescu truly made his name at Chelsea where he was part of the club’s emergence as a Premier League force. A 95-time capped international with his native Romania, he’d famously score against England at the 1998 World Cup, a tournament that also saw him — and his teammates — bleach their hair blond.

8. Gary Neville

Club(s): Man Utd

Premier League appearances: 400

Defensive ability: 8/10

Assists: 35

A graduate of Man Utd’s fabled Class of 92, not many banked on Gary Neville enjoying an illustrious playing career. Deemed too short to play centre-back, Neville reinvented himself at right-back, closely studying teammate and multifunctional full-back Denis Irwin, and would strike up a legendary tandem on the right flank with David Beckham.

7. César Azpilicueta

Club(s): Chelsea

Premier League appearances: 305

Defensive ability: 8.5/10

Assists: 35

Affectionately nicknamed “Dave” by his Chelsea teammates, it took awhile for him to settle at Stamford Bridge but once the Spaniard did, he has not looked back since. A two-time Premier League winner, Azpilicueta now leads Thomas Tuchel’s men into battle.

“It is a pure pleasure to be his coach. Azpi is so focused, honest, a sports guy and such a competitor. He is so open and focused on his best performances everyday. What you see on a match day is what I see everyday,” Tuchel recently said.

“He lives his role. He is maybe not the leader that you would sometimes expect from outside or in general that we as people expect leaders to be – loud and extroverted. He is not this.

“He is very emotional but he is calm, he leads by example. He is not giving speeches every day. When you put him in every single exercise, you know what the level is up to. The captain is in top shape, has had sleep and looks after himself.

“He is a fantastic captain, a great player and just a really good guy too.”

6. Andy Hinchcliffe

Club(s): Everton, Sheffield Wednesday

Premier League appearances: 219

Defensive ability: 6/10

Assists: 36

A set-piece master, Andy Hinchcliffe came through at boyhood club Manchester City, but would join Everton a few seasons before the Premier League’s formation. He’d spend the majority of the 1990s at Goodison Park until seeing out his career at Sheffield Wednesday.

5. Ian Harte

Club(s): Leeds United, Sunderland, Reading

Premier League appearances: 237

Defensive ability: 7/10

Assists: 36

Ian Harte was known more for his scoring during his time at Elland Road, particularly from dead ball situations, but like his fellow compatriot (and full-back) Kelly, the Irishman didn’t need a second invitation to maraud into the opposition half.

4. Trent Alexander-Arnold

Club(s): Liverpool

Premier League appearances: 135

Defensive ability: 7.5/10

Assists: 39

Widely regarded as world football’s premier right-back — a title he’s competing with Achraf Hakimi — the Liverpudlian has cemented his spot in Jurgen Klopp’s starting lineup and such is Trent Alexander-Arnold’s seamless ability to create there are some observers who believe he could end up playing in central midfield.

“The passing of [Alexander-Arnold] is just utterly sublime,” wrote Gary Lineker. “Will play a huge part in England’s progress over the next few years. He’s on another level and has to play.”

3. Andrew Robertson

Club(s): Hull City, Liverpool

Premier League appearances: 194

Defensive ability: 8/10

Assists: 40

The other half of Liverpool’s irresistible full-back duo. Andrew Roberton briefly tasted Premier League action with Hull City before their 2018 demotion. His performance during that one season convinced the powers that be at Anfield and he’s not looked back since.

“He’s like the full package, as the defender and the attacker, that you wish for in the position. He’s a leader in the team and all this kind of stuff,” his manager Klopp enthused.

2. Graeme Le Saux

Club(s): Chelsea, Blackburn Rovers, Southampton

Premier League appearances: 327

Defensive ability: 7/10

Assists: 44

Graeme Le Saux was part of Blackburn’s Premier League-winning side under Kenny Dalglish, a stint that was sandwiched between spells at boyhood club Chelsea, during that run he’d collect 36 England caps with his only goal coming against Brazil.

1. Leighton Baines

Club(s): Wigan, Everton

Premier League appearances: 420

Defensive ability: 7.5/10

Assists: 53

During the 2010/11 season Leighton Baines registered 11 assists, the most by a defender in a single Premier League campaign equalling former Toffee full-back Hinchcliffe (1994/95), that was until Alexander-Arnold burst onto the scene.

“I have only worked with him for six months, but he has had a fantastic career and I found him a fantastic player, still,” former Everton boss Carlo Ancelotti said following Baines decision to retire.

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