To start, I’d just like to do a simple piece, in which numbers are used in a not so emphatic way. This isn’t a piece to show why numbers are right, why they’re better than just watching, or why they should be used at all. It’s just a fun little exercise where numbers are used to find players that might not otherwise be recognized – and I think that’s a great start for anyone into a statistical analysis. Today’s search with numbers led me to squawka.com in search of a special player. A player that beautifully combines defensive prowess and ability with offensive creation.
In general terms, the position is known as a defensive midfielder, though when you look within that position you’ll find several subsets of players. First there are the “destroyers.” The guys whose sole job is to win the ball back, at any means necessary, and recycle possession. They’re usually utilized with another defensive player to help creation, but they can be used by themselves. The other defensive player most destroyers are paired with are deep-lying playmakers. They’re the midfielders responsible for generating offense from deep, and have incredibly limited defensive responsibilities. Like destroyers, they can be deployed by themselves, though teams run the risk of getting beat on the counter without defensive coverage for their deep-lying playmakers. There’s a third type of defensive midfielder, and that’s the position I want to talk about today.
They’re not quite a destroyer and they’re not quite a deep-lying playmaker – they’re a defensive creator. They’re a player whose job is both to win the ball back and create offense when they do so. It’s a position that takes a special skill set, and one that should be looked at a bit closer. To take this closer look, I looked at midfielders currently in the top five leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy, and France) over the last three seasons. To determine whether they were a destroyer, deep-lying playmaker, or defensive creator I set some parameters in my search.
(Hang on, boring explanation paragraph coming.)
First of all, they had to have played at least 25 matches and 2000 minutes in their league during the 2014/15 season. I wanted to find players that had a big enough sample to judge their play, and not just a few minutes or matches of greatness. Second, I looked at defense. I looked for players with both 1.50 interceptions per 90 minutes and 2.00 tackles per 90 minutes with a 40% or higher successful tackle rate. The final defensive look I used was a combination of interceptions and tackles per 90 – finding players with 4.00 interceptions plus tackles per 90. That determined whether they were really a defensive player or merely a deep-lying playmaker, but then I had to differentiate between destroyers and defensive creators – so I also looked at pass completion rates, only using players that completed 85% of their passes or more. To add an extra element of creation, I looked for players with 0.50 chances created per 90 minutes, as well. The point I felt where it didn’t “punish” players for playing deep and but also didn’t allow players no creation – it forced them to be part of the offense. The chances created stat was only used to define the sample for the 2014 season. After that, I wasn’t quite as concerned with the number of chances created as there are more factors that determine that than there are the other numbers.
Still with me? Great.
When looking through those parameters, the results yield five names – Luiz Gustavo (Wolfsburg), Maxime Gonalons (Olympique Lyonnais), Idrissa Gueye (Aston Villa), Morgan Schneiderlin (Manchester United), and Sergio Busquets (FC Barcelona). Let’s take a look at them player by player.
Luiz Gustavo is probably not someone most people think of when they look for defensive creators. He’s not a big name and he doesn’t play for a big team (anymore), but he’s been quietly building quite the career. His interceptions per 90 minutes have climbed each of the last three seasons from 2.1 in the 2012/13 season to 3.32 in the 2014/15 season. His tackles haven’t follow the same trend, but they remain consistently high – keeping his tackles plus interceptions rate over 5.50 for the last season.
On the offensive side of the ball, he’s pretty solid. He completed 88% of his passes last season, and plays the exact role described above. Wolfsburg often run a 4-1-4-1, and Gustavo plays in the line between the midfield and defense – the guy who is responsible for protecting the backline, and getting the ball forward for the midfield to take over – and he plays that position marvelously.
Gonalons has been one of my favorites for quite some time, and for this very reason. The Lyon defensive midfielder had an interception plus tackle rate over 6.0 for the second time in three seasons – and his “down” season his number was still over quite good. He’s a superb tackler, and he reads the game quite well – and that leads to him stopping the ball quite frequently.
Gonalons also plays in the “in-between” in Lyon’s 4-1-2-1-2 formation (though he’s also played in a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3). As stated above, he does quite well at protecting his backline, and his consistent passing (completed at an 88% clip) really helps Lyon move forward.
I’ll be honest in saying I was surprised to see Gueye included in the list of players. While he’s a good player, he’s not someone I would’ve expected to show up. Having since moved on to Aston Villa in the Barclays Premier League, Gueye is on this list for his contributions to Lille in Ligue 1. Gueye didn’t play in the in-between like Gustavo and Gonalons did, but he alternated between being a defensive midfielder and a central midfielder in Lille’s 4-1-2-1-2, using assets on both sides of the ball to play this role.
In 2012/13 Gueye had an astronomical season, completing nearly 3 tackles per 90 and over 4 interceptions while passing at an 88% clip. Since then, his numbers have calmed down and he’s still over 2.5 interceptions, and up over 5.50 combined defensive plays per 90 minutes – while passing at an 86% clip. He’s not usually someone you’d think of, but Aston Villa may have made a very good (under the radar) signing.
This one isn’t quite a surprise. People have known that he’s good for a few seasons, and he’s since moved to Manchester United because of his ability and recognition. He jumped onto everyone’s map when he intercepted almost four balls per 90 and won over three tackles. His numbers have cooled off, though, “down” to 2.6 interceptions per 90 and 3.25 tackles per 90.
On the offensive side of the ball, he’s very sturdy. His passing completion sits at 89% and has for the last two full seasons. He created over 0.8 chances per 90 minutes in his last season with Southampton, and was instrumental for them. It’s not coincidence that Manchester United’s midfield control has increased dramatically with his inclusion in a double pivot with the aging (less mobile) Bastian Schweinsteiger. He does incredibly well at getting the ball to the German playmaker, who’s then able to spray the ball across the pitch to four incredibly creative players – and it all starts with the French gem.
The final player is the one I had in mind when starting this project, and the only one I truly expected to see. He’s been instrumental in the Barcelona attack for the last five years, and is still just as big as the team shifts to a new style and dynamic. To give you an idea of Busquets’ ability, people started to question whether he was done as an elite player while he was still winning over four balls per 90 and completing passes at a 92% clip.
Busquets is nearly the definition of the in-between, and is good enough that all of his coaches trust him to control any counter attacks, and pushing the team into a sort of 2-1-4-3 formation in attack (in what’s nominally called a 4-3-3). Busquets’ interception totals are headed down hill, but his tackling and his passing remain at elite levels – and his presence continues to allow Barcelona incredibly freedom and fluidity in the attack.
So there you have it – the six players that numbers say are really good at both winning the ball back, and doing something meaningful when they get it. The players that are making the position and role increasingly vital, the players giving the coach freedom and more options in the attack. These are the players systems can be built around.