Breaking down the defense: Don't focus on attacking returns

Virgil van Dijk offers plenty of fantasy upside thanks to his abilities as a passer and a defender. Shaun Brooks/Actionplus/Icon Sportswire

When building your fantasy soccer lineup each week, you probably spend most of your time fretting about your forwards and midfielders.

That's natural. These are the guys that score most of the goals. And your captain should virtually always be a player at one of those positions.

In fact, the top nine outfield players in the Premier League so far this season, in terms of fantasy points, are forwards and midfielders.

That being said, defenders are important, too. Your fantasy matchup will sometimes be very close, and just a couple of extra points could make all the difference.

In my Premier League review column on Monday, I wrote about Manchester City -- in particular, about how valuable their players can be when they face a much-inferior opponent, thanks to dominating possession.

I mentioned that Man City fullbacks Oleksandr Zinchenko (20.7 points) and Kyle Walker (15.7) both outscored Tottenham fullback Kieran Trippier (14.1), even though Trippier had an assist, and neither of them had a goal or assist ... due to passes completed.

That prompted a larger question -- just how important is it to choose defenders with a decent chance of goals or assists, in terms of ESPN's fantasy scoring system?

Last week I got lucky, in a sense. I picked Tripper as my Tier 1 defender and Wolves' Matt Doherty as my Tier 2 defender, thinking both had a solid chance of being involved in a goal against Huddersfield Town and Southampton, respectively.

Both players ended up with an assist, which obviously I was delighted about. But then I saw that Zinchenko outscored both my players, and Doherty (16.2) barely outscored Walker.

If Trippier and Doherty hadn't gotten those assists, my overall score would have significantly dropped. And defenders -- even attacking fullbacks like Trippier and Doherty -- don't get goals and assists that often. Trippier had no goals and five assists in 24 league games last season. Doherty, playing in the second division, had four goals and four assists in 45 games.

For those of us who have played other formats of fantasy soccer before, like Fantasy Premier League and daily fantasy games, we're accustomed to seeking out fullbacks rather than center backs, because they're more involved in attacking play. But maybe they're not always the best option in ESPN's format?

Let's take a look at a couple more players from this past weekend. Liverpool center back Virgil van Dijk finished with the same exact points total as Trippier. He had 76 passes completed -- way more than Trippier's 21, but far fewer than Zinchenko (123) and Walker (98). Van Dijk also had eight clearances though, good for four points ... almost as good as an assist (five).

And clearances is a much more reliable stat than assists. Van Dijk is averaging 7.4 clearances per game through the first seven weeks of the season.

Chelsea's David Luiz also did not have a goal or assist, but finished pretty close behind Trippier (12.7). Luiz had 52 passes completed, not a particularly high total for a center back. But he also had seven clearances and five interceptions, which netted him six points -- better than an assist.

A glance at the fantasy points leaderboard through the first seven weeks of the season is a little shocking. Six of the top seven defenders are center backs.

Yes, five of those six have scored a goal, and Leicester City's Harry Maguire has scored two. But that's far from the only reason why they're ranked so high. And some of the names may surprise you.

Tottenham's Jan Vertonghen is fourth (86.3). He has scored one goal, but Vertonghen also does a little bit of everything. He is tied for ninth among defenders in tackles (15), tied for 11th in interceptions (12), and tied for 19th in clearances (33).

Bournemouth's Steve Cook is fifth (86.2). He has a goal and an assist, but is also second in the league in clearances (53).

Chelsea's Antonio Rudgier is sixth (80.6), despite not having a goal or assist. Rudiger has completed 516 passes -- far more than Vertonghen (383) and Cooks (242) -- while also picking up a decent amount of points via the other peripheral categories.

Trippier already has a goal and two assists this season, and Doherty has two assists. Yet they only have 69.7 and 68.6 points, respectively. To be fair, though, Trippier has only played in six of Tottenham's first seven games.

I'm not saying you should abandon fullbacks. Marcos Alonso remains the points leader among defenders (99.8), despite a couple of quiet weeks. Alonso has only taken one shot in Chelsea's past two games combined. But he had nine clearances against Liverpool on Saturday, so still ended up with a pretty good score (11.2).

But center backs certainly should not be dismissed. Manchester City's Aymeric Laporte is second behind Alonso (97.0). He's completed 640 passes -- 124 more than Rudiger, who is second among defenders.

Maguire is third, right behind Laporte (95.3). As mentioned above, he already has two goals -- as many as he had all of last season. But don't be surprised if he gets at least a couple more. Maguire likes to get forward. He's already taken nine shots (only Alonso has taken more among defenders with 14). Six of those shots for Maguire were on target, which is tops among defenders.

And Maguire does the dirty work, too. He's ninth among defenders in clearances (40). Read it and weep, Jose Mourinho.