In the first part of my series looking into the best rookies from the 2019/20 Premier League season thus far, I used data and statistics to analyse the performances of Dean Henderson and Aaron Ramsdale. In this part of my analysis series, I will widen my net to look at the performances of rookie Premier League full-backs this season. Compared to the goalkeepers there are obviously a lot more rookie full-backs and as such, I’ll be mainly focusing on the players who particularly stand out in the data.
Djibril Sidibé, Everton (27)
Jack Stacey, Bournemouth (24)
Max Aarons, Norwich (20)
Frédéric Guilbert, Aston Villa (25)
George Baldock, Sheffield United (27)
Reece James, Chelsea (20)
Bukayo Saka, Arsenal (18)
Jetro Willems, Newcastle (26)
Enda Stevens, Sheffield United (29)
Jamal Lewis, Norwich (22)
As we can see with this list, which is different from the goalkeeper list, a number of the players have already had extensive careers outside of the Premier League. Both Sheffield United full-backs, Stevens and Baldock, would be considered in the prime of their careers. As would, Sidibé, Guilbert, and Willems. Whilst Aarons, Lewis, James, and to a lesser extent Stacey are all still young they have also had professional experience outside of the Premier League. Bukayo Saka is the only player on the list for whom the 2019/20 Premier League season was his first full professional season. I felt as though despite the fact Saka made a seven-minute cameo in the 18/19 season, it would be sensible to consider this season as his rookie season as not only did he earn ample more game time he also played the majority in a completely new position.
The initial two standouts when it comes to analysing the data are Djibril Sidibé and Frédéric Guilbert. Both Frenchmen make the second and third most tackle attempts against dribblers, however, they only perform at just above the average when it comes to their success rate in the tackle. On the other hand, the likes of James and Baldock attempt a few amount of tackles than the average but are some of the best when it comes to their success rate.
In comparison to his Sheffield United teammate, Enda Stevens has a much lower success rate when it comes to tackles vs dribbles and in fact, has the fourth lowest success rate. Marginally worse than him is Jack Stacey who wins just one tackle in every four attempts against a dribbler. Jetro Willems is the only other Premier League rookie full-back to appear in the bottom left of the viz, sitting just below the average for tackles attempted but with a weak success rate at just 31.3%.
Another data point worth noting is the position of Bukayo Saka. He is just above the average line when it comes to tackles attempted but below the average line in terms of tackle success rate. This would appear to be indicative of a young player looking to make an impact in the team by attempting more tackle but perhaps lacking the necessary technique to perform as effectively as he might like at this early stage in his career. However, that is not to say his numbers are outright bad. He has a higher success rate than the likes of Benjamin Mendy, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Ben Chilwell all of whom are considered at the top of their game in the Premier League and have much more top-flight experience in the position.
I also elected to include interceptions p90 in the viz to highlight their defensive work aside from simply tackling. Again both Sidibé and Guilbert appear towards the top of the chart when it comes to interceptions p90, highlighting how active they are when it comes to the defensive side of the game.
The next aspect of play that I will look into is dribbling tendencies and success rates. This can be a very team dependent style as some managers may not want their full-backs dribbling very often but by considering both the number of dribbles attempted as well as their success rate we can begin to see both an indication of team style, player style, and player quality.
In contrast to the previous graphic which was focused on a defensive metric we now see a number of names appearing in the top right of the viz who were perhaps on the lower side of the defensive viz. Both Stevens and Willems have some of the highest success rates as well as attempting a more than average amount of dribbles. Both Sheffield United and Newcastle have more often than not operated with three central defenders alongside two wing-backs, this gives both Stevens and Willems much greater license to dribble with the ball more often than other full-backs. On top of this, Sheffield United look to create overloads in wide areas which would also lead to both Stevens and Baldock who can be found just above the average line for both success rate and dribbles attempted alongside Guilbert.
Reece James is another name who appears very favourably in the data. He has the second highest dribble success rate amongst Premier League full-backs whilst also attempting a higher than an average number of dribbles. He is a very competent dribbler and can also use his impressive physique for such a young man to his advantage in this aspect of the game. Bukayo Saka also provides a sizeable threat when he dribbles, attempting 2.4 a game with a success rate of 65%. This is one of the potential benefits of moving him back from an attacking role into a full-back.
Both Norwich full-backs Aarons and Lewis, whilst attempting both the seventh and eighth highest number of dribbles per game are performing at just above average for Lewis but marginally below average for Max Aarons. Completing 48% of your dribbles doesn’t immediately suggest Aarons is a bad dribbler but when compared to his position mates he doesn’t perform nearly as well.
Use of the ball in the final third (p90)
Once full-backs can get on the ball in the final third it is interesting to compare how they use it to their position mates. The two main ways of getting the ball into the penalty area are through crosses and passes. Players can move the ball into the area via a dribble but I don’t think this is an accessible stat at the moment on fbref. As expected, team quality plays a huge role in this aspect of the game. The leading full-backs for crosses into the area and passes into the area play for Liverpool and Man City except for Martín Montoya of Brighton.
However, there are some interesting data points to highlight. Reece James appears to be particularly effective for Chelsea when it comes to moving the ball into the penalty area. This is something he proved he was capable of in abundance when he lit up the Championship at Wigan. Frédéric Guilbert again reflects well in the data, operating at above average for both crosses and passes into the area. Considering he is playing for a side who for the most part have struggled in the Premier League this season the data indicates that he has the potential to provide a significant threat from full-back.
Enda Stevens has played the 7th most passes p90 into the penalty area in the league whilst his teammate George Baldock provides a mixture threat from both crosses and passes. Whilst highly rated, both Jamal Lewis and Max Aarons appear to not have posed too much of a threat in the final third for Norwich this season. Of course, this may be down to team quality as Norwich have particularly struggled this season but when compared to the likes of Guilbert who was also playing for a struggling Premier League team is doesn’t look great for the East Coast pair.
Whilst some full-backs can be incredibly active in the final third due to being the recipient of a progressive pass, other full-backs may be the ones who instead play those progressive passes. In the following viz, I wanted to look at how readily Premier League full-backs played progressive passes compared to their total amount of passes p90.
The familiar names again appear in the top right of the graph. Reece James again appears in the top right of the graph amongst some of the more elite full-backs in the league. He has a better progressive pass to total pass ratio than the likes of Kyle Walker and Ben Chilwell. Djibril Sidibé joins James in the top right of the viz. Whilst his numbers were good if not spectacular when it comes to passes and crosses into the penalty area, he appears to be very efficient in terms of playing progressive passes.
Aston Villa’s Guilbert again is reflected well in the viz. Of his 46.3 passes p90, 6.64 are progressive passes, meaning that every seventh pass he plays p90 is a progressive pass. Guilbert performed similarly to Enda Stevens with Stevens playing a progressive pass every 7.3 passes. It is without doubt important for players in lower quality sides to be efficient with their use of the ball particularly when their control of the ball is limited and both Guilbert and Stevens, in particular, seem to be effective in this aspect of the game.
In a similar vein to the previous data point, I wanted to look at how efficient Premier League full-backs are when it comes to creating touches. To do this I looked at xA p90 and touches p90 and compared the two to each other. This would highlight players who despite having fewer touches were able to create good quality chances rather than simply listing xA in a bar chart.
Reece James again appears in the top right of the viz suggesting that whilst he does touch the ball regularly during the game he also creates a number of good chances. A number of the players from our rookie list appear in the bottom right quadrant. Stevens, Aarons, Saka, and Stacey are all registering an above-average xA value p90 whilst touching the ball less than the average full-back does p90. This would suggest that these four players, in particular, are especially efficient when it comes to creating good chances. The data again, however, doesn’t favour Aarons’ teammate Lewis all that well. He has an above-average number of touches p90 but the joint third-lowest xA value, suggesting that despite being involved in play more than other full-backs in the league he doesn’t pose that great of a threat when it comes to creating chances.
There seems to be a fair spread in which players have particularly excelled in which aspects of the game according to the data. Djibril Sidibé stood out in the tackling data and was also well placed in terms of progressive pass x total passes. Jack Stacey didn’t particularly stand out in any aspects of the data except for appearing to be incredibly efficient when it comes to creating good chances from a small amount of touches p90. Norwich duo Jamal Lewis and Max Aarons have appeared to struggle a little in their rookie seasons in the Premier League, however, both have age on their side and making the step-up to the Premier League as part of one of the weaker defences in the league is not an easy task.
On the opposite side, both George Baldock and Enda Stevens have performed admirably according to the data. Baldock was particularly effective when it came to tackling whereas Stevens stood out when it came to the attacking side of the game. With the performances of Stevens and Baldock looking impressive based on the data it is no real surprise that they have helped Sheffield United to an unforgettable season thus far. Bringing in Jetro Willems on a loan-deal from Frankfurt appeared to be a fairly shrewd bit of business from Newcastle. Willems has had a wealth of experience in the Eredivise and in continental football but perhaps playing in a heavily defensive side like Newcastle his true potential was slightly limited. Based on the data he was one of the stand out dribblers amongst full-backs in the league but struggled to assert himself in the final third and also struggled at times on the defensive side of the game. Similarly, Jack Stacey seems to have had a mixed season when analysing the data.
Bukayo Saka and Reece James are probably the two names on this list who have garnered the most media and general attention this season, as young English players at the top six clubs tend to. There were clamours for an England call-up for Saka and whilst I do think he has shown some signs of potential to be a top full-back, I feel it is still too early in his career for that step-up. As expected he was an attacking threat across the board, fairing particularly well when it comes to dribbling and chance creation. He was neither noticeably good or bad in terms of his defensive game but there is definitely room for improvement. Reece James is probably one of the stand-out players on this list. He tended to be reflected well in all aspects of the data and for the most part was performing just under the bracket of elite defenders in the Premier League which is incredibly promising. With Azpilicueta set to be the wrong side of 30 come August, it would seem that James would be able to lock down the right-back position at Chelsea for the foreseeable future.
The final player on the list was Aston Villa’s Frédéric Guilbert. Before fully looking into the data I wouldn’t have predicted Guilbert to have been reflected so well in the data. Across the board he has appeared to play fairly well, especially when considering he was in one of the weaker sides in the Premier League this season. With someone like Guilbert it would be important to see if he would pass the eye test as well as the initial data analysis.