In the third instalment of my look into some of the best performing rookies in the 2019/20 Premier League using data analysis, I will round out the defensive players with the centre-backs. With the use of data analysis and statistics, we are able to gain an insight into some of the league’s top performers.
Fikayo Tomori, Chelsea (22)
Adam Webster, Brighton (25)
Ben Godfrey, Norwich (22)
Christoph Zimmermann, Norwich (27)
John Egan, Sheffield United (27)
Jack O’Connell, Sheffield United (26)
Chris Basham, Sheffield United (31)
Björn Engels, Aston Villa (25)
Ezri Konsa, Aston Villa (22)
Korney Hause, Aston Villa (24)
As with the list of rookies in the full-back position, a number of the rookies at centre back come from the newly promoted sides; Sheffield United, Norwich and Aston Villa. What’s more, a number of the players on the list could be considered at the prime age for a Premier League footballer with only Fikayo Tomori, Ezri Konsa, Kortney Hause and Ben Godfrey yet to reach their prime. It is always interesting to see whether players who have had extensive careers outside of the English top-flight can make the adjustment to the Premier League and this list, in particular, may offer us an insight into this.
The first data point that I will consider is tackling. The widely held belief that is still in place in football is that a defenders job is to defend and as such it seems only right that I begin with the most basic form of defending and that is tackling.
In terms of the players on the list of rookies, Christoph Zimmermann is the stand-out. He averages 1.39 tackles p90 with a success rate of 80%, the second-highest in the league. Kortney Hause has also been impressive with his tackling according to the data. He makes more tackles p90 than the average Premier League centre backs with a higher success rate than average.
Jack O’Connell, Fikayo Tomori and Ezri Konsa all win more of their tackles than the average Premier League centre-back but attempt less than their position-mates. Chris Basham appears on the opposition side of the chart. He is attempting more tackles than the average Premier League centre-back but only a 38% success rate. Adam Webster, Ben Godfrey and Björn Engels all appear in the bottom left of the chart, attempting tackles less often than the average Premier League centre but also with a lower success rate.
As always with data analysis, sweeping conclusions can’t be drawn simply from analysing a scatter chart. We can see that a number of highly-rated centre backs appear in the bottom left of the chart. The likes of Nathan Aké, Harry Maguire and Virgin van Dijk all attempt fewer tackles than the average Premier League centre backs with comparatively low success rates. Does this alone suggest these players are bad defenders? No. But it is worth noting that when these players do attempt a tackle against a dribble they are more often than not unsuccessful in winning the ball back for their side. Whether this affects their sides’ defending drastically or not would require further video analysis.
The other major aspect of a centre backs defensive performance is their ability in the air.
Christoph Zimmerman is again reflected favourably in the data. He has the fourth-highest aerial duel win % amongst his Premier League position-mates at 78.3% but is less active when it comes to contesting for the ball in the air.
Webster, O’Connell and Engels are our three rookies who fall into the top right of the graph. All three contest the ball in the air more than the average Premier League centre back and also operate with a higher success rate than the average Premier League centre back.
Both Konsa and Tomori fall into the bottom left quadrant of the chart. The two centre backs contest for the ball in the air less than the average centre back but also win a smaller percentage of their aerial duels than the average Premier League centre back, with Konsa particularly poor in the air with just a 50% win rate. Both players could be considered on the small side when it comes to central defenders at just 6ft and 6ft 1 respectively. Interestingly, Jack Stephens, Nicolás Otamendi and Ciaran Clark who are the three other centre backs in the bottom four for aerial duel win percentage are all 6ft 1 or under.
Use of the ball
Traditional defending aside, centre backs can be vital cogs in a side’s build-up play. The first aspect that I will look at is how readily Premier League centre backs play progressive passes.
Whilst initially it may be surprising to see three of Brighton’s central defenders, including rookie Adam Webster, operating at similar levels to Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea defenders the South Coast side actually boast the fifth-highest possession stat in the Premier League and fourth highest number of passes attempted. With all that considered, it is still worth noting that Adam Webster is playing more progressive passes p90 than the likes of Rüdiger, Zouma, Tomori and Otamendi despite having fewer touches of the ball p90.
Jack O’Connell plays the seventh-highest number of progressive passes p90 when compared to his Premier League position-mates despite having just above the median number of touches of the ball p90. This indicates that he is highly efficient when it comes to progressing the ball, not needing a lot of touches of the ball before finding a progressive pass. Kortney Hause is also reflected favourably in the data with a similar output to Maguire, Lindelöf and David Luiz, despite playing for a side who have the eight lowest possession figure in the league.
On the other hand, Ben Godfrey has more touches of the ball p90 than the average Premier League centre back but only boasts 1.7 progressive passes p90, suggesting that whilst he tends to have a large share of the ball he is less active when it comes to progressing the ball, whether this is down to his personal ability or team instructions would require further analysis. On the inverse, Björn Engels has a below-average number of touches p90 but plays an above-average number of progressive passes which indicates that he is actively looking to progressive the ball when he gets on it.
To add a further layer to my analysis of I decided to look at how readily Premier League centre backs play the ball into the penalty area and the opposition final third. The colours indicate overall pass completion rate, the more red a player is the higher pass completion rate he has and the bluer the lower.
Whilst progressive passes can be effective in the build-up phase, looking at which players move the ball into the danger areas can indicate which of these centre backs have a direct effect on the team’s attacking play.
Fikayo Tomori is again one of the standouts when it comes to the rookie centre backs. Tomori does have the third most touches of the ball p90 but he does look to move the ball into the danger areas at a decent rate. Whilst Kortney Hause and Jack O’Connell do look to play the ball into the danger areas more than the average centre-back their overall completion percentages are some of the lowest. Adam Webster again is positioned in the top right quadrant of the chart but his numbers stand out slightly less than in the previous chart.
Ben Godfrey is again positioned in the top left quadrant of the chart but we can see from the colour of his dot that he has a high overall completion rate. This could add some clarity to his individual style of passing suggesting that whilst he has a lot of the ball compared to other Premier League centre backs he prefers to keep hold of the ball rather than progressing the ball or moving it into the danger areas himself.
Passing the ball is one way of progressing the ball forwards but the other way in which players can move the ball up the field is through carrying the ball.
Kortney Hause is the standout from my list of rookies when it comes to carrying the ball forward. He attempts the second most dribbles in the league amongst centre backs whilst having only marginally more touches than the average Premier League centre back. Fikayo Tomori also looks to progress the ball through dribbles actively, attempting 0.76 dribbles p90, the fifth most amongst central defenders in the league.
Chris Basham has posted interesting numbers when it comes to dribbles attempted p90. He averages fewer touches of the ball p90 than the other central defenders in the league but has the fourth-highest number of dribbles attempted. This ties in with Sheffield United’s innovative ‘overlapping centre backs’ system of which Basham is perhaps the most adept.
It can be very difficult and perhaps unwise to draw conclusions on the performances of footballers, particularly central defenders. Centre backs are often components of wider defensive systems and can play functional roles based on the back four/five they play in. With that considered, however, this data analysis can offer some initial insight into the rookies in the Premier League.
Christoph Zimmermann has posted the most impressive defensive numbers of the rookies. He has the second-best tackle win percentage at 80% and the fourth highest aerial duel win percentage at 78%.
In terms of on the ball action, the likes of Fikayo Tomori and Adam Webster are some of the standouts when it comes to progressing the ball, with the caveat that both are in possession hungry sides. Kortney Hause appears to have a very interesting on the ball profile, posting similar passing numbers to the likes of Maguire, David Luiz and Lindelöf all players who are lauded for their abilities on the ball.
Hause also appears to be a more active dribbler than his Premier League position-mates all while playing for a side who are quite possession shy. Jack O’Connell and Chris Basham are good examples of two players who on the surface appear to do the same job actually operating in slightly different manners. Both O’Connell and Basham post average numbers when it comes to the number of touches they have p90, O’Connell is a very active when it comes to progressing the ball whereas Basham moves the ball forward much more via dribbling.