Stats Analysis: – Ball-Playing Centre-Backs, A Panic or An Assurance?

We have heard a lot about “ball-playing” centre-backs in modern-day football. So, let us first know, who we exactly refer to as a centre-back of this type. A defender’s role has evolved a lot in the past decade or so, some of them are still happy to defend first. But, there are many who are comfortable on the ball and are involved in a passing team build-up. The lack of man-to-man defending and introduction of zonal defence has moved the general positioning of a centre-back forward towards the centre line.
Let us take a look at some of the stats from the top European leagues’ centre-backs. In the process, we will try to figure out whether the evolved system has affected their basic trade or not. Furthermore, we will analyse their strengths and weaknesses that come up with an enhanced role. We have 5 centre-backs from some of the top teams who play their way out from the centre-backs.

Stats Analysis: –

Nicolas Otamendi (Manchester City): –

Manchester City have been superb playing out from back this season with a near invincible record. The Argentine centre-back Nicolas Otamendi has been superb all-year for Pep Guardiola. Let us brush through some of his stats to figure out how he has been performing.

Games (All Competitions including pre-season): – 37

Minutes Played: – 2591

Average Passing Length: – 18 metres

Defensive Errors Leading to Opposition Goal: – 2

Pass Success Rate: – 93%

Aerials Duels Won: – 2.7 per Game

Tackles: – 1.7 per Game

Interceptions: – 1.9 per Game (55 in Total)

Clearances: – 106 in Total (2.8 per Game)

Key Passes Leading to Goal: – 8

Blocks: – 0.3 per Game (10 in Total)

If we analyse the above stats, one thing stood out is 8 key passes leading to a goal. This clearly means Otamendi is playing in a higher line where he can effect a goal-scoring build-up. In the meantime, defensive things like blocks, interceptions has gone under the radar a bit. It shows the changing role of a defender. To illustrate his high positioning, we have his heat-map of the areas he covered in an away game against Manchester United.

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Otamendi’s heatmap against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

The above image clearly shows, half of the time he is closer to the half-way line. This allows the whole team to be compact and that is the reason of some key passes leading to goal in a general way from a deeper position.

Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli): –

Napoli under Maurizio Sarri have played one of the best passing football in recent times. Their centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly has been integral in the building from back process. Due to his performances, the Senegalese has been linked to some big clubs in Europe. Let us take a quick look at some of his stats this season and measure his impacts overall.

Games (All Competitions including pre-season): – 29

Minutes Played: – 2340

Average Passing Length: – 17 metres

Defensive Errors Leading to Opposition Goal: – 1

Pass Success Rate: – 90.1%

Aerials Duels Won: – 1.6 per Game

Tackles: – 2.11 per Game

Interceptions: – 1.4 per Game (41 in Total)

Clearances: – 94 in Total (3.24 per Game)

Key Passes Leading to Goal: – 9

Blocks: – 0.6 per Game (16 in Total)

Well, Koulibaly has even more key passes that has led to a Napoli goal. Such is the way Sarri sets up his team to play, with a false 9 and an interchangeable front line. He has a better tackling rate, clearly means the player knows his primary job. In addition, higher rate of important clearances shows he is not a one-dimensional players. We have a heat-map of his positioning in a game against a similarly high-line team Manchester City in Naples.

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Koulibaly heat-map against Manchester City in Naples

The above image shows how high Napoli plays, even in a game against a side which plays a higher line too. Some of his touches have even gone beyond the half-way line.

Read More: – January Transfer Window 2018 –  Proving to be a turning-pointer, an Analysis!

Gerard Pique (Barcelona): –

Gerard Pique has been one of the best, if not the best ball-playing centre-backs in the last decade or so. He has played in the Guardiola system and been successful, he was wonderful in the Luis Enrique treble-winning year too. Obviously, being a Barcelona academy product, you are trained to play this way, but Pique has taken that to another level. Let us take a look at his stats this season under Ernesto Valverde, where he has done pretty well.

Games (All Competitions including pre-season): – 26

Minutes Played: – 1816

Average Passing Length: – 20 metres

Defensive Errors Leading to Opposition Goal: – 0

Pass Success Rate: – 90%

Aerials Duels Won: – 1.5 per Game

Tackles: – 1 per Game

Interceptions: – 0.6 per Game (13 in Total)

Clearances: – 91 in Total

Key Passes Leading to Goal: – 7

Blocks: – 0.7 per Game (15 in Total)

While Barcelona have been “pragmatically great” this season, a term most used in the Valverde era, Gerard Pique has done well. Defensive tackling may not be his greatest trade or it might be that Barcelona are so dominant in La Liga so far, defensive duties might not be needed that much. Key passes leading to goal is again on the higher side for a ball-playing defender, almost at a rate of 1 every 4 games. The average pass length is slightly on the higher side but still adequate. The pass success rate again on the higher side which is good when you are the last line of defence.

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Gerard Pique heat-map vs Juventus at the Camp Nou

In the above image, we have a heat-map of Pique’s positioning against Juventus at Camp Nou in a Champions League game. We can see as we saw in other cases above, the Spaniard is almost up to the half-way line.

Mats Hummels (Bayern Munich): –

We generally tend to look at Mats Hummels and visualise him as one of the centre-backs who could easily play creative football. Obviously, at Bayern, you have to be good on the ball to be a first-choice centre-back. Hummels, probably is one of the five best ball-playing centre-backs in Europe at this moment in time. We will take a look at some of his stats this season under couple of managers he has been under.

Games (All Competitions including pre-season): – 24

Minutes Played: – 1406

Average Passing Length: – 20 metres

Defensive Errors Leading to Opposition Goal: – 0

Pass Success Rate: – 87.5%

Aerials Duels Won: – 2.9 per Game

Tackles: – 1.6 per Game

Interceptions: – 2.2 per Game (50 in Total)

Clearances: – 38 in Total (1.58 per Game)

Key Passes Leading to Goal: – 5

Blocks: – 0.4 per Game (10 in Total)

Being physically well-built, he has a higher rate of winning aerial duels. Average pass success rate is slightly lower than 90 just because on more than few occasions, he looks for a diagonal ball or a direct ball towards the striker, that long-rangers sometimes can be cut off. Key passes leading to goal as you’d expect is high, 1 in about 5 games at an average. He is a good defender too, which makes him better as a player.

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Mats Hummels heat-map vs Hannover in the Allianz Arena

The above image clearly shows how high Hummels plays when Bayern tend to dominate games in the Bundesliga. He has a habit of stepping into midfield and almost dictating the pace of the game. His eye for an effective through ball is great too.

Davinson Sanchez (Tottenham Hotspur): –

Davinson Sanchez being an Ajax player has a reputation of being quick, good on the ball and defensively sound. A making of a fabulous Pochettino player that. He has excelled in his first season in the Premier League at Tottenham. The Colombian has been calm on the ball and is a no nonsense defender when in his own box. We take a brush through his stats of this season as to how he has performed overall.

Games: – 25

Minutes Played: – 2092

Average Passing Length: – 19.5 metres

Defensive Errors Leading to Opposition Goal: – 0

Pass Success Rate: – 88.2%

Aerials Duels Won: – 2.4 per Game

Tackles: – 1.2 per Game

Interceptions: – 1.4 per Game (35 in Total)

Clearances: – 116 in Total (4.6 per Game)

Key Passes Leading to Goal: – 3

Blocks: – 0.3 per Game (8 in Total)

The clearance stat there proves us the point of Sanchez being a no nonsense defender in his own box. At a rate of almost 5 important clearances a game. He is a physically strong man being a South American, so his aerial duels winning rate is on the higher side as well. The pass length is less than 20 metres which clearly shows Pochettino likes the short build-up play from his centre-backs. He is not known for long-range diagonals, something his club-mate Toby Alderweireld is famous for.

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Davinson Sanchez heat-map against Manchester United at Wembley

The above image shows Sanchez’s heat-map in a high-profile game against Manchester United just a few days ago. Spurs pressed United high on the night and some of Sanchez’s positioning iterates us with that fact. He has a very good recovery run because he is quick, so he can afford to be a yard higher and catch up later.

Inference: –

Well, that was all about the stats part and analysing the performances of the high-profile ball-playing centre-backs in Europe. One thing common in all of them is a higher rate of key passes leading to a goal, which is a modern thing no doubt. This actually enables managers to field a defensive midfield, just because service sometimes can come from the back itself.

As we went through analysing, their defensive side of things have been pretty decent. So, overall after going through facts and figures, we can infer one thing that playing as a ball-playing centre-back doesn’t take out the primary quality in a player. Maybe they are not that defensively solid because of how high they play, but in the box, all defenders are the same. Sometimes, they tend to play their way out in very tight situations which is stupidity, otherwise, we can’t differentiate types of centre-backs. In fact, “good on ball” centre-backs are more useful in the overall game of a team in the modern day. A defensive transformation of the highest order we might say. More of an assurance we should assume.

Article by Mizgan,

Twitter – @mizgans

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