The beautiful game is much more than its most important art form.
Goals and creativity no doubt sell tickets but as the old adage goes, a strong defence wins championships.
It might be seen in some quarters as not being a “quality”, but there’s something primal and somewhat enjoyable about a well-timed challenge, and the same could be said about witnessing a player beating his man.
So, with that being said, we’ve compiled two XIs using data from the 2017/18 season onwards. In the blue corner, an ultimate take-ons team, and in the red corner, a team consisting of the most prolific tacklers in each position.
Ultimate take-ons XI
The idea of a goalkeeper completing a take-on seems out of the ordinary given they never seem to leave their penalty area, but as we’ve seen with ball-playing ‘keepers becoming more prominent, this new breed are not afraid when it comes to going toe-to-toe with an onrushing forward.
Since the 2017/18 campaign began, across Europe’s top five leagues, there have been quite a few, but just one has reached double figures and that is Mike Maignan, who since 2015 has exclusively represented Lille.
In front of him is an interesting quartet that includes West Ham’s left-back Arthur Masuaku and reported Everton target Bouna Sarr, currently signed to Marseille. Sandwiched between them are Davide Biraschi and former Borussia Dortmund man Abdou Diallo, who faces strong competition for places at Paris Saint-Germain.
There’s a French flavour to central midfield with the much talked about Houssem Aouar alongside ex-Lyon teammate Tanguy Ndombele. Ahead of them is the impressive Atalanta attacking midfielder Alejandro Gómez and he could only be pleased to see who’s leading the line in this team. Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard, two of European football’s premier dribblers, flank the irresistible Kylian Mbappé, who at times feels like being the second coming of Ronaldo Nazario.
Ultimate tacklers XI
Given the changing nature of the goalkeeper role, becoming more and more like sweepers, those between the sticks are being forced into an ever-increasing number of tackles. The likes of Ederson and Marko Dmitrovic rank in this regard, but not as high as Toulouse stopper Baptiste Reynet, who has made seven tackles.
There’s a workmanlike feel to the rest of this team. Frederic Guilbert at right-back no doubt raises an eyebrow given the reputation Aaron Wan-Bissaka is forging, but the Aston Villa man (who not long ago was turning out for Caen) has been a tackling machine in France and England. On the opposite flank is another Premier League star, the underrated Wolves left-back Jonny, who continues to put out consistent performances.
Martin Hinteregger of Eintracht Frankfurt and Real Betis’ Marc Bartra forge a solid yet stylish central defensive partnership, but it’s nothing in comparison to the double pivot right in front of them, and it’s one no opposition will fancy taking on. Idrissa Gueye, it’s fair to say, has played a role in transforming PSG as they seek European glory and alongside him is an equally destructive midfielder in the guise of Wilfred Ndidi, whose importance to Leicester City cannot be understated. These two have been the grandmasters in the art of tackling over the past few years.
It would be unfair to suggest the front-four would be lacking goals. Abdoulaye Doucoure, operating in the hole, has been popping up more and more in his advanced role and we’ve seen Richarlison, stationed on the left flank, go on a tear in the Premier League this season. Jordan Ayew, who leads the line, is coming into his own with Lucas Ocampos proving to be a threat for Sevilla this term.