Fullback or center back? The risk and reward decision in ESPN Fantasy Soccer

Virgil van Dijk might not offer the same attacking flair as his fullback teammates, but what he offers your fantasy team can often be better. PETER POWELL/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Matchweek 13 in the Premier League is in the books and, as is often the case, there were some surprising names at the top of the fantasy points leaderboard.

Four players finished with braces. For Huddersfield Town's Aaron Mooy and Southampton's Stuart Armstrong, it was their first two goals of the season, so don't get too excited.

Leroy Sane was the overall leader, thanks in large part to two goals and an assist. But he's only started in six of Manchester City's first 13 league games.

And then there's Aleksandar Mitrovic, who notched his sixth and seventh goals of the season in Claudio Ranieri's first game in charge at Fulham. Perhaps Ranieri's appointment will lead to a resurgence from Mitrovic, who had gone goal-less in Fulham's previous six games.

Twenty-one different players scored a goal this weekend, and 16 players picked up an assist. But as I scanned the leaderboard, I was more intrigued once I got down to the players who didn't have a goal or assist.

Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk was the best of this bunch, finishing with a very solid 14.2 points. And right behind him was Everton defender Michael Keane (14.1) and Manchester City defender Nicolas Otamendi (14.0). These three even finished above two players who scored goals, and eight of the 16 who had assists!

Van Dijk, Keane and Otamendi are all center backs. And those of us who have played fantasy soccer in other formats -- Fantasy Premier League, daily fantasy, etc. -- are programmed to avoid center backs and choose fullbacks as our defenders, since they're usually more involved in their teams' attacks, and more likely to get goals and assists.

But ESPN's fantasy soccer game is proving to be different. I wrote about this in early October, and the trend has continued: Center backs are generally outperforming fullbacks, at least thus far.

One player in my 10-team ESPN fantasy league had van Dijk on his roster this week. And only one other player selected a center back in either of his defender slots (West Ham's Fabian Balbuena, who only managed to accumulate 6.1 points).

Everyone else doubled-up on fullbacks, and of the seven selected, only one managed to finish in double-digits -- barely -- as you'll see on the list below:

On the season, seven of the top eight defenders in fantasy points are center backs. And that includes two players who don't have a single goal or assist -- Chelsea's David Luiz, who is ranked third, and van Dijk, who is sixth.

How are these players performing so well, despite no attacking returns? Well, to start with, they're third and fourth among defenders in passes completed, with 937 and 875, respectively.

They also do lots of dirty work for their teams -- particularly when it comes to clearances, a category in which van Dijk is ranked 10th in the league and Luiz is tied for 19th. Passing numbers and defensive peripherals are much more stable week-to-week.

Otamendi and Keane are ranked second and fourth among defenders in fantasy points per game, by the way, although Otamendi has only started in four league games thus far.

It will continue to be tempting to focus on fullbacks. Naturally it's more fun to watching then bombing up the flanks and putting in crosses.

As a Liverpool fan, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Robertson fly past two Watford defenders in the 89th minute on Saturday, teeing up Sadio Mane for a shot which eventually led to Roberto Firmino's goal. But Mane's shot was saved, meaning no assist for Robertson. And as you can see above, even if Robertson had gotten an assist there, he still would have barely outscored van Dijk.

Robertson already has three assists this season, but he is still averaging fewer points per game than van Dijk. It's close, and I'm not saying Robertson's a bad pick -- particularly when Liverpool are up against weak defensive teams. But van Dijk is the more reliable option, for sure.

The one fullback who stands apart is Chelsea's Marcos Alonso, who remains the fantasy points leader among all defenders. He's only scored one goal, and it was way back in Matchweek 2. But Alonso scored seven goals last season, and six the season before that.

He's a much bigger goal threat than Robertson, who hasn't scored one this season and only scored one last season. Alonso has already taken 22 shots this year, while Robertson has only taken six.

I'm planning to pick Alonso again next week, playing at home against Fulham, who have the worst defensive record in the league -- that's too good to pass up. But my second choice would probably be van Dijk, not Robertson.

Don't dismiss center backs! They're much better fantasy assets than you might think.