With the out and out defensive portion of my review on the Premier League rookies complete I will today move onto the midfield. I will look into the defensive midfielders using data analysis. With the help of both data analysis and statistics, I will present a report on the rookie defensive midfielders in this season’s Premier League.
Rodri, Manchester City (23)
Marvelous Nakamba, Aston Villa (26)
Douglas Luiz, Aston Villa (22)
Kenny McLean, Norwich (28)
Rodri was perhaps the most high-profile rookie to play in this season’s Premier League. He commanded a €63,000,000 fee from Atlético Madrid and was looked upon to be the successor for Fernandinho. The other three rookies are obviously all members of newly promoted sides. Douglas Luiz was brought in from Manchester City by Aston Villa which was seen as somewhat of a coup by the midland side, after glowing praise from Pep Guardiola in the previous pre-season. Marvelous Nakamba was also signed to bolster the midfield from Genk, whilst Kenny McLean was entering his second full season at Norwich after being an important member of their Championship winning squad.
As with my reports which focused on full-backs and centre-backs, I will start this analysis with the tackling statistics of the Premier League’s rookie defensive midfielders.
From initial observations, we can see that McLean, Luiz and Nakamba all struggled somewhat in the tackling department. Luiz and McLean were both below average when it came to tackles attempted vs dribbles p90 and tackle success rate vs dribbles. Nakamba was a more willing tackler but his success rate was the lowest amongst his position-mates at just 21.7%. Rodri can be seen in the bottom right quadrant of the chart. He attempted fewer tackles vs dribbles p90 than the average Premier League defensive midfielder but had the third-highest win % amongst his position-mates at 39.6%. I also included interceptions p90 in this chart as there is certainly more than just 1v1 tackling to a defensive midfielder’s game. Luiz again struggled in this aspect registering just 0.89 interceptions p90, only Granit Xhaka had a lower number of interceptions p90 amongst defensive midfielders. McLean and Rodri both posted similar numbers at 1.26 and 1.11 interceptions p90. Nakamba made the most interceptions p90 of these Premier League rookies registering 1.87 p90.
To add a further layer of detail to the tackling analysis I looked at where on the pitch the Premier League defensive midfielders made their tackles.
Marvelous Nakamba is second only to Ndidi when it comes to tackles p90 in the defensive third p90 and second only to Oriol Romeu when it comes to tackles p90 in the middle third. Whilst his tackle success rate is the lowest amongst his position-mates, he certainly puts himself about in across both the defensive and midfield third. Nakamba’s willingness to tackle all over the pitch perhaps explains Douglas Luiz’s aversion to tackle all over the pitch. He makes the least amount of tackles p90 in the midfield third and registers just 1 tackle p90 in the defensive third. McLean makes the second-fewest tackles in the defensive third but also in the midfield third. Only his Norwich teammate Alexander Tettey makes fewer tackles in the defensive third, which may explain some of Norwich’s defensive frailties this season. Rodri (unmarked on the chart) appears just to the left of Jorginho. Suggesting that the two have similar defensive profiles when it comes to tackle locations. Only Fabinho, Ndidi and Jorginho have made more tackles p90 in the opposition attacking third than Rodri but this is definitely an aspect of Rodri and Manchester City’s game that could be improved. Much has been written on Manchester City’s pressing this season and the fact that three of City’s direct rivals are registering more tackles all over the pitch than the Spaniard could be a direct result of this drop off in pressuring.
The talk of Manchester City’s pressing leads me nicely onto my next data point. A defensive midfielder is a crucial aspect of a side pressing as he needs to stay connected to his midfield and attacking teammates but also give cover to his defenders.
Rodri’s pressing again isn’t shown favourably in the data. He makes less pressures p90 in both the defensive and midfield thirds. A number of players from both top-six rivals and the rest of the league register more pressures in the final third as well as achieving a higher pressure success rate. This could be attributed to the fact this Manchester City tend to dominate possession so it would make sense that he wouldn’t be pressing too actively. This data is also not possession adjusted. However, when you compare his numbers to players who play in similarly possession hungry sides, you can begin to get a read on some of his struggles when it comes to applying pressure. Jorginho and Fabinho make more pressures across all third on the pitch as well as registering greater success rates. Rodri exhibits a similar pressing profile to the likes of Nemanja Matić and Granit Xhaka both of whom have been criticised for their defensive mobility in recent seasons.
McLean can again be found in the bottom left quadrant of the chart. However, the Norwich midfielder did register a fair number of pressures in the attacking third whilst operating with a moderate success rate. His teammate Tettey, however, didn’t really apply much pressure anywhere on the pitch whilst also registering one of the worst success rates at just 23.9%. With McLean being fairly aggressive in the final third and his midfield partner tending not to press too aggressively anywhere we can see a potential disconnect in the Norwich midfield.
A similar story emerges when analysing Nakamba and Douglas Luiz. Nakamba showed a willingness to apply pressure across the field which is highlighted by a combined 22.6 pressures p90 across the midfield and defensive thirds and an impressive 34.3% success rate, the highest amongst his position mates. Douglas Luiz was more reserved than his teammate, however he did make 19 pressures p90 across the midfield and defensive thirds whilst also registering 2.95 pressures p90 in the attacking third. His success rate however was way down. The Brazilian only mustered a 24.7% success rate with his pressures.
With the defensive aspect of play covered I will move onto how the Premier League rookie defensive midfielders use the ball when they have it.
As expected, when looking at their use of the ball Rodri falls into the top right quadrant of the chart. He has the most touches p90 (98.4) of any defensive midfielder in the league with the highest completion % at 92.6. He plays the 6th most progressive passes p90 registering 5.81. Kenny McLean’s progressive passing profile is almost perfectly average with 60.3 touches p90 and 4.53 progressive passes p90. His pass completion percentage however is on the lower side at just 77%.
Both Douglas Luiz and Nakamba appear to be fairly unadventurous when it comes to their passing. Both are on the ball less than the average Premier League defensive midfielder with both playing less than progressive passes than the average with Nakamba only playing 1.92 p90. For someone that was heavily praised by Pep Guardiola and potentially earmarked to take over from Fernandinho, Douglas Luiz’s progressive passing is nothing to shout about. Admittedly this could be the result of playing in a weak side relative to the league, but playing just 3.89 progressive passes p90 and boasting an overall completion rate at just 81.8% could highlight the reason Manchester City opted to sell Luiz rather than loan him out.
In addition to looking at progressive passing in general, I wanted to see where exactly the defensive midfielders were passing the ball.
Rodri again appears high on the chart registering 8.34 passes to the final third p90, however, he doesn’t appear to play as many balls into the penalty area as his position-mates perhaps leaving the responsibility to the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. Both Douglas Luiz McLean appear favourably when it comes to passes to the penalty area. Douglas Luiz’s 0.79 passes to the penalty area p90 is only bettered by four players, all of which play for traditional top-six sides. McLean also sits just behind the likes of Winks, Xhaka, Fabinho, Matić, and Jorginho with 0.71 passes into the area p90. Aston Villa have tended to operate with a physical target man style centre forward this season and this is perhaps reflected in Douglas Luiz’s tendency to play the ball directly into the area.
In analysis the various data points a very clear picture of Marvelous Nakamba’s role in Aston Villa’s team has been painted. He rarely plays progressive passes, passes into the final third or passes into the box, and tends to simply be the destroyer, handing over the responsibility of creating and linking play to the likes of Douglas Luiz and of course Jack Grealish.
It is always tricky to specifically designate a midfielder as defensive or supporting or attacking. Midfielders are often tasked with performing all three of these roles depending on game state or opponent for example. The players also play in different systems. Rodri often plays in a single pivot but has also played alongside İlkay Gündoğan in a midfield two. Similarly, Douglas Luiz and Nakamba have both played as a single pivot or with each other or Connor Hourihane in a double pivot. Kenny McLean has been more set for Norwich with Daniel Farke tending to employ a double pivot of him and Tettey behind an attacking trio for the majority of the season.
Using the data we can, however, begin to see play styles, as well as strengths and weaknesses, appear in players’ games. Rodri is a very consistent player with the ball. He finds passes into the final third regularly and rarely gives the ball away. He doesn’t tend to progress the ball as much as may be expected from someone with around 100 touches a game. Whilst he is a solid tackler when called upon, he isn’t making his tackles very high up the field in the same way a Fabinho or a Ndidi would, his pressing follows a similar story.
Marvelous Nakamba is the typical defensive midfielder. He attempts a lot of tackles and applies a lot of pressure all across the pitch, his tackling success rate is poor but he makes up for this with an impressive pressure success rate. If you were to pair Nakamba with a player who can sit alongside him and progress the ball from deep in a similar manner to Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kanté, you could have a potentially successful midfield duo. Douglas Luiz however, doesn’t immediately jump out as that man, however. It is his first season in the league and at just 22 there is definitely room for him to improve. But, beyond passing the ball into the box fairly regularly, he hasn’t added much defensively or offensively to his side.
Kenny McLean falls into a similar bracket. Neither he nor Alex Tettey has provided much protection to Norwich’s young back four, with their lack of tackling and pressure but from an initial analysis of the stats, this does appear to be more of an issue with Tettey than McLean. McLean progresses the ball reasonably well without moving the ball into the final third all that often and instead looking for more direct balls into the box potentially bypassing Norwich’s most dangerous player in Emi Buendia.