Understated and underrated - why Aaron Hughes is one of the Premier League's finest defenders

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's StatsZone app – now FREE – to analyse Fulham's often overlooked defensive stalwart...

Behind every great commanding centre-back lies a calmer, quieter partner. Nemanja Vidic was once the best defender in the league, thanks largely to his strength and aerial abilities, but Rio Ferdinand was equally important with his anticipation skills, constantly sweeping behind him. Arsenal is another example – Thomas Vermaelen needs a quick player like William Gallas (in his first season) or Laurent Koscielny behind him – he looks less comfortable alongside Per Mertesacker.

Butn the finest example is at a club with perhaps a slightly lower profile, Fulham. Their partnership of Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes is textbook – Hangeland is dominant in the air, commits early to tackles, and he’s an inspirational captain. Hughes stays on his feet, takes up deeper positions, and he wins the ball more cleanly.

Naturally, it’s Hangeland who gets more attention – his style of defending is simply more obvious. He’s been linked with a move to Manchester United in the January transfer window, although he’s constantly been rumoured to be leaving Craven Cottage in recent years, and at 31, it might be too late for a big transfer.

But the understated Hughes is equally important to the partnership – and he might even be a finer defender. When Martin Jol first arrived at Fulham, he paired Hangeland and Philippe Senderos, with Hughes a disappointed spectator. Hangeland and Senderos are fine defenders, but reasonably similar so the partnership didn’t work naturally – and after gradually finding his way back into the side midway through last season, Hughes has become first-choice against in 2012/13.

Hangeland is currently suspended following a reckless tackle on Lee Cattermole in the home defeat to Sunderland, but in his absence Hughes has continued to be excellent, moving to the left side of the pairing to accommodate Senderos. The absence of Hangeland was a big blow for the trip to Stoke, but Fulham conceded just once – and then kept a clean sheet at Stamford Bridge in midweek. Considering they’d conceded eleven goals in their previous four league fixtures, it’s an impressive record – Senderos has done well, but Hughes was supreme in the draw at Chelsea.

The peculiar thing about Hughes’ defending is how understated it is. In 14 games, he’s attempted just eight tackles, and conceded only three fouls – that’s not a sign that he isn’t defending, instead, he gets into good positions and stays on his feet when winning the ball. He hasn’t been sent off in over 400 Premier League appearances, and has only received three bookings since the start of 2009/10.

He’s a more prolific interceptor – doing so 2.6 times per game, compared to 0.6 tackles. That balance is not unheard of, but it’s in stark contrast to a more rugged, simple defender like Sunderland’s Carlos Cuellar, for example, who intercepts 1.6 times a game, compared to 3.2 tackles.

Hughes’ performance against Sunderland showed those tendencies:

And he’s always positioned well inside the penalty box – against Chelsea he constantly cleared the ball, and got back to make two crucial blocks – notably from a Fernando Torres shot.

This weekend’s match against Tottenham should suit his abilities well – he might have struggled in the air against a tall powerful striker like Emmanuel Adebayor, but he’s still suspended, and instead Jermain Defoe will look to sprint in behind the defence. At 33, Hughes might have lost half a yard of pace, but his positioning remains exemplary, and that remains the most important attribute for any centre-back.

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