It’s struck me, recently, that being a defender is quite easy. Relatively. And I say this as a centre-back.
Not that I have data to back this up, but from watching centre-backs quite closely over the past few months it seems that most of their work is fitness or team-structure based. If you can a) largely keep up with a forward for 90 minutes and b) you and your team-mates know the system well enough to be roughly in line with each other and to cover for each other when one is dragged out of position, then you can be a somewhat competent centre-back for maybe 85% of the time (I plucked that number out of the air – a lot of the time is the point).
Quality awareness of where the opposition is and subtle positioning changes are useful, but only against the quality opponents, and you’re not up against them all of the time. Anyone can be a centre-back 85% of the time, but in the other 15% the quality really shows and lesser players can be torn apart.
This is probably why defenders are so often evaluated in physical terms: power, presence, pace, the ability to win a crunching tackle, leadership; unless you’re up against a striker with great movement, this is mostly what you need. (You can of course make up for a lack in pace, presence, power with good positioning, but you’ll also get mowed over by lesser players, which isn’t a good look).
It’s probably also why players like John Stones and (yes, of course I’d mention him) Dejan Lovren are so awkward to classify. Both have talents which would equip them to play against quality forwards, but both are also lacking in more basic, fundamental areas. They’re almost equally likely to screw up, or play well, during the easier 85% and the harder 15% of games.
This is where I think strikers are different. Whereas anyone can be a competent defender 85% of the time but quality shows at the upper 15%, I get the feeling that anyone can be a striker at the lower 15% but quality shows itself everywhere else.
The top strikers aren’t known by scoring against the best – the closest you get to this are ‘big-game strikers’, and even they aren’t really a thing. The best strikers just score lots of goals, against anyone that’s put before them.
Maybe this links to the way in which their abilities are measured. Strikers are easily judged by goals (or shots and expected goals to use some fancier stats), though intangible qualities like positioning, teamwork, and anticipation are hugely important to creating these when you try and look deeper into their talents.
For defenders, the individual stats don’t really work as well, because some defensive tactics don’t require them to make many actions. It’s much harder to have an initial opinion of a centre-back that you can then develop with further study, and mainstream opinions on them are usually based on mistakes or pretty sliding tackles (or come shortly after unrelated success).
This may mean that in scouting you will naturally need to watch defenders more than strikers (although you need to watch them enough to know whether the performances you’ve watched, good or bad, are repeatable). And, given that we tend to watch what happens on the ball and that defenders don’t do a lot of their work on the ball, this makes it even harder to have reasoned views on defenders.
I think. As with anything, I could be wrong, but am 85% sure I’m not.