Defense: The Secret of Footballing Success

Bayern Munich defender Juan Bernat (right)

When betting, it's important to have a firm grasp on statistics. Have a head for numbers, combined with an instinct for the places where surprise results will happen, and those big returns will follow. Here, we look at the best-defending teams in the five major European football leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France), by goals conceded, to find out why they were so outstanding.

1. Bayern Munich - 18 Goals

18 goals conceded from the season to date - that's just incredible. Pep Guardiola is often praised for his qualities as an attacking coach, getting false-nines to dovetail with center-forwards and wingers in perfect harmony, but it's a tribute to his defensive organization that Bayern have only let in just over half a goal every game.

The back-four playing in Bayern's 2-1 victory over Freiburg, which was Rafinha, Jeroen Boateng, Mehdi Benatia and Juan Bernat, has remained fairly consistent since the injury sustained by Austrian David Alaba which has kept him out in recent weeks. Though the attention usually goes to Bayern's forwards, their backline is the bedrock of their success.

2. Barcelona - 19 Goals

This is surprising to anyone who has seen Barcelona in recent years. After the retirement of Carles Puyol, Barca's former captain, it was felt it would be difficult to fill the defensive breach. Javier Mascherano, who had filled-in as a center-back in previous seasons, was seen as too small and too acclimatized to playing in midfield, his natural position.

Jordi Alba and Dani Alves continue to be attack-minded full-backs who push the play forward fast, but Pique has been partnered by last summer's new signing Jeremy Mathieu, a very un-Barca arrival who has toughened up those around him while scoring the occasional header from corners (something else that the team did not used to do regularly), or on other occasions Marc Bartra and Mascherano.

In this case, Mathieu has made Pique less nervous and error-prone, while Bartra's increased maturity gave Barca strength in-depth.

3. Juventus - 21 Goals

In Serie A a league that has traditionally prided itself on defense, Juventus are the kings of the solid rearguard. The Turin club have clinched the Italian Scudetto by a huge points margin, and one of the reasons they have been able to go on such a run is because of absolute confidence in their defense.

Juventus have been able to keep hold of their final title-winning defense under previous manager Antonio Conte, with the addition of former Manchester United left-back Patrice Evra. The Frenchman might have looked a little off-the-pace in the Premier League last season, but anyone playing in defense for that United side would have had a challenge on their hands.

This season Evra has slotted seamlessly into the regular defensive line of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (who has consistently been the best goalkeeper in the world for the past decade), Giorgio Chiellini, Stephan Lichtsteiner and Andrea Barzagli.

There is no question that experience in defense makes a whole team better - this has been the case with Juve, where so often, opposition teams have known that once you go 1-0 down to the champions, there is rarely if ever a way back.

4. Borussia Mönchengladbach - 23 Goals

It's fascinating that, although it is often assumed that the Italian league is the most defensive of the major European leagues, this season the Bundesliga provided two of the meanest defenses in Europe. Gladbach are not a team of household names like Bayern, but they play to their many strengths, and are attractive in the way they play, keeping and shielding the ball, patiently probing for chances, then using the pace of their attackers.

Goalkeeper Yann Sommer (26 years old) plays behind a usual back-four of Tony Jantschke (24), Julian Korb (27), Oscar Wendt (29) and Martin Stranzl (34), all, except for Jantschke, selections based on experience, and all players who may not be high-profile, but are highly-effective.

Why No Premier League Teams?

It is sometimes said that you can define the quality of a team by its defense. It is certainly true that, by-and-large, teams that defend well are at the top, or near the top of their leagues. The most miserly defense in the Premier League is that of champions Chelsea, who have let in 28 goals to date. In a poor season for defending, theirs is the only defense that has remained consistently fit, and free from rotation.

It is tempting to wonder how good Manchester City's defense might have been, had Vincent Kompany remained fit, but they also had to give Eliaquim Mangala time to acclimatize to English football's speed.

The general upshot is that the less tactical, more ping-pong nature of English football does not favor calm defending, and compared to the best in Europe, Premier League teams are just not as good right now.

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