France’s Midfield Problem

To be completely honest, this started as an attempt to explain why France is criminally under-utilizing two of the best midfielders on the planet. It started with some statistical adjustments to this equation to not only put players on an even field in terms of possession, but also in terms of competition. The goal is to account for as many factors as possible that will alter the numbers but are out of player control to give a better indication of what “true talent” a player harnesses.

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In doing this research, the numbers suggested that Morgan Schneiderlin and Maxime Gonalons are both two of the top five defensive midfielders on the planet – which isn’t really a surprise. The point, as I started writing, was to talk about how two of the best defensive midfielders on the planet combined for just twenty caps for their national team. That’s absurd. To put it in perspective, Sergio Busquets has played in as many matches for Catalonia (a team that can’t participate in official matches) as Gonalons has played for France.

As I began writing, though, I realized that I would have to come up with a formation that suited the use of both players – and I started to struggle a little bit. It’s really easy to point out the problem, but finding the solution is another story. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I probably couldn’t fit both on the pitch at the same time and keep a cohesive, attacking unit (which is what the rest of the squad is built to be).

From there, I started trying to find a playmaker to use. Someone that was excellent on the ball, that was mobile, that was capable of linking the midfield to the front line. Then it hit me.

France doesn’t really have that guy. Sure Yohan Cabaye isn’t bad, but that’s about as far as one could take that judgment on the situation. The rest of the players are very much deep-lying playmakers – best suited to play in the same area as Schneiderlin or Gonalons – box-to-box midfielders, or attacking midfielders. France doesn’t really have a guy like Schweinsteiger, Marchisio, Verratti, or Modric. They’ve got everything else, but they don’t have someone that can play as an advanced playmaker.

So the question began to set in: how does one make a squad out of such players?

I think there are three main options. France could deploy one of their defensive midfielders with two physical midfielders, they could deploy both of their defensive midfielders in a double pivot, or they could deploy one of their defensive midfielders as an advanced playmaker and the other as a defensive midfielder.

Option 1

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I think the simplest option is deploying one of their elite defensive midfielders as a deep-lying playmaker. In this instance, Schneiderlin is probably the best option – averaging an adjusted 6.16 tackles plus interceptions per 90 minutes last season while completing an adjusted 89.4% of his passes. Schneiderlin is clearly defensively astute enough to play as a single-pivot and his passing suggests that he’s got the ability to take over that role.

If that were to happen, I think the best pairing would be Pogba and Matuidi around him. Between the two players, Schneiderlin would have the physical presence necessary for him to roam into space. While he may vacate his nominal position occasionally, both of his midfield compatriots are more than capable of holding down the fort until he returned – with Pogba averaging more than 3.2 balls won back per 90 minutes (when adjusted, of course) and Matuidi averaging nearly five balls won back. This pairing would give Schneiderlin the most freedom, while giving the midfield a strong defensive presence, and the necessary pieces to provide a connection to the front line.

Option 2

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The issue I find with the first suggestion is that it puts a non-defensive player holding down a defensive role for a decent amount of the match. If France were to do that, they might as well use Gonalons and Schneiderlin – either in a double pivot or pushing Schneiderlin into a more advanced “6” role. If they were to use a double pivot, their defense seems to be locked down long-term. Between Schneiderlin and Gonalons, the ability to read and tackle balls would be arguably the best in the world for the position – and would allow both of them more range to either side – allowing the fullbacks more cover if and when they push into the attack.

The biggest problem is that it innately makes them very defensive. As I mentioned before, their squad is already very attack minded. No matter what happens in these two positions, France is poised to be a very attack-minded squad. They have an embarrassment of riches as far as strikers are concerned, Paul Pogba is very, very good when attacking, and their choices at leftback are a wingback and a fullback that tends to be more attack-minded. Outside of the innately defensive positions of central defender and keeper, there really aren’t any defensive players in the squad.

With the make-up of the squad, it’s hard to envision any sort of connection between the defensive players and the attacking players. Pogba is good, but he’s not good enough to carry the ball into the attack and he’s certain not good enough to pass the ball into that position. The wide players will have trouble running onto balls from the midfield with two players pushed back into more defensive roles. Essentially, the formation brings an incredible sense of defensive security, but relies heavily on individual ability to create chances when they’ve got the ball.

Option 3

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The best solution to this problem is to use on of their defensive players as more of a “6.” We’ve already seen Barcelona do this with a decent amount of success, and while I wouldn’t say either have the passing technique or vision that Busquets has, neither of them are poor on the ball – which suggests it could work. Schneiderlin has shown with United that he’s more than capable of being a roaming player. Whether he’s roaming to make plays off the ball or roaming into space to receive the ball, he’s shown he’s mobile enough to play a role of this sort.

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Schneiderlin’s heat map against Everton, from whoscored.com

The biggest concern with this formation – for me – is simply that we don’t know how Schneiderlin will play in an advanced role. He could end up being very, very good as a “6” or he could be absolutely lost when pushed further up the pitch. In theory, this trio is the best option – in my opinion. The trouble is whether theory and reality will coincide.

So there they are – three options with three benefits and three drawbacks. After crunching some numbers, after looking at some heat maps, after watching them play, I’ve come to the conclusion that I genuinely have no idea what their best option is. If they were to start using one of their defensive midfielders more often, it seems most likely that Schneiderlin would be situation behind Pogba and Matuidi – the way he is in option one. I can’t say that’s the best option, it just seems most realistic.

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4 thoughts on “France’s Midfield Problem

  1. Top notch article, I thoroughly enjoyed that. Miles ahead of the drivel you get from the Guardian.
    I wondered whether you had an opinion on a certain player: Franco Vazquez. I’m curious to hear what the statistics and various metrics say about him as an attacking midfielder. Anecdotal evidence and testimonials from my Sicilian brethren assure me he’s class and the Palermo boss does seem to have a keen eye for spotting talent (Wikipedia tells me Cavani, Pastore, and Dybala all have roots at the club). Ever cast an eye on the player? If so, what do the numbers suggest are the formations/styles of play that suit him best? Are we talking about a player that could find a starting berth at one of the top 6 teams in the PL, La Liga, Bundesliga, or Ligue 1?
    Any insight would be much appreciated. Cheers

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Daniel! I honestly haven’t seen Vazquez a ton, but I do know a bit about him. I know he’s a central attacker that more resembles a false-9 than a true-9, and was largely played behind Dybala last season at Palermo.

      In terms of whether or not he can go on to become a great player at an elite club, I think I’d have to say it’s unlikely. While he’s good (roughly 2.9 chances created+shots on target per 90), his game is largely based around a position and skill that just aren’t used in today’s game. He doesn’t shoot well (34% shot on target rate between the last two years), and relies heavily on his chance creation. Perhaps someone is willing to play him in the hole in a 4-2-3-1, but I’m not sure he’d the preferred target.

      The numbers like him a bit, but his style of production suggests he won’t be on any major teams’ target list.

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      1. Thank you for the unexpectedly swift reply Ty. If I understand correctly then, Franco’s style of play is not obsolete but…well, a VHS tape in a digital world. And after being spoken of with such enthusiasm by my Sicilian friends, it seems I am to keep your evaluation of Vazquez to myself lest I hurt their feelings by suggesting their star man doesn’t quite cut the mustard in world footballing terms. That’s a pity that, though numbers are unapologetically honest, to a fanatic they can be perhaps a little cruel.

        As a clarification of your reply, by a false-9 and “hole” you mean player 7 in the formation with the red and black kit in the following link?: http://playingwithahighline.blogspot.com/2012/08/guest-article-outside-of-boot-emergence.html (the “trequatista”)?

        I’ve looked back at your other articles and understanding now that squawka.com offers a ready source of statistics, I shall be using it to research any future players using its mass of information. But as a head start, what sort of statistics should one consider when analyzing the worthiness of a defender or a midfielder or…etc? That is to say, if one claims player X to be class, what sort of metrics should one be looking at and within what range should Mr. X be putting up those numbers to be adjudicated a top player within his position? If it’s something you’re still trying to get to grips with yourself (hence the website) or too complex that it’s a massive hassle to write up I’ll see to doing some research, there’s got to be something out there in the greater web. In fact, thinking now, the vastness of positions, schemes, and leagues is such that perhaps the best way of understanding what constitutes average or excellent is to look at player after player and develop a sense, factoring in the responsibilities being tasked to that player and the league/teammates/formation, of what sort of numbers someone playing under those circumstances would have to produce for it to be fairly/objectively (or as damn near close to objectively as possible) stated that he is doing so “well” (that’s a long sentence! Hope you get what I’m getting at). In other words, perhaps mine is a question whose scope is so large that it’s difficult to come up with an answer that does the complexity of the game justice. Or the answer may lie somewhere in the squawka.com archives and if I fiddle around with it some, I can get it to draw me up a list of the top 30 odd players in each of the major positions?Within the “field” of statistical player analysis, is there a more or less widely agreed upon numerically based criteria for each position? For convenience’s sake, would it be best then if you point me in the right direction?

        I read an article recently and given you’re a Barcelona supporter and curate an interest in statistical breakdowns, I wondered if you’ve seen it:
        http://swissramble.blogspot.ch/2012/04/truth-about-debt-at-barcelona-and-real.html
        Muck like your writings, it looks at a problem and analyzes a subject matter from a series of different and evolving perspectives, albeit from the financial side of the sport. Maybe you’ll enjoy it, who knows, eh?

        Finally, can you make any recommendations for any other websites or forums? I’ve mostly stuck to The Guardian but now realize there’s so much more out there.
        Cheers

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      2. A trequartista or false-9 wouldn’t exist in that formation – though you’re thinking of similar roles. A false-9 in a forward drawn back near the midfield in a 4-3-3. The idea is that the CF pulls a center-back into the midfield, and creates space for inverted wingers to run into. It relies on wide players that can score well, such as Neymar or Cristiano (though neither Benzema or Suarez are false-9’s). The idea behind it is that it creates more control (by bringing the forward closer to the midfield) while simultaneously creating space in the backline. It’s the position that Messi holds when he plays centrally.

        A trequartista is a midfielder pushed closer to the front line. It really only exists in a 4-3-1-2 – which is subtly different than a 4-3-3 with a false-9. Where the 4-3-3 has a withdrawn central forward and two wingers, the 4-3-1-2 has an advanced midfielder with two central forwards. The width in the attack is then provided by fullbacks pushing forward.

        Whoscored.com also offers some fantastic statistics, and I tend to prefer their single-match stats (i.e. heat maps, possession, etc.) over squawka, but I find squawka easier navigate (though I know several people that prefer whoscored – there’s really not a major difference). In terms of stats, there are a few that I look at – but it really varies based on role. For all midfielders, I look at a relationship between pass completion and average pass distance. I don’t have any data on it (seeing as I don’t have access to all the passes, and an average of averages is inaccurate), but I tend to go by a ratio of 2.5% for every one meter changed. In terms of being “good,” I tend to start around 90% for 16m (80% for 20m). Above/below those ratios should give you an indication.

        Roles do play a part, though. Players that play as an attacking midfielder (or trequartista) are often attempting tougher passes but still not attempting long passes – so their ratio will be off. They should have a substantially higher rate of chances created, though – which is something else to look at. For defensive midfielders, I combine tackles and interceptions to look at how frequently players win the ball back. It’s not on any site (so you’ll have to do some manual labor), but Ted Knutson did some work with statsbomb.com that suggested it was an accurate look. Regardless, you should always look at multiple stats. There’s nothing out there that’s remotely good enough to give an overall look as an “end-all, be-all” stat. The differing stats to look at just depend on the role.

        I’ve really enjoyed the SB Nation sites. I frequent Barca Blaugranes and Black White and Read All Over (Barcelona and Juventus, respectively), but there are sites for several other teams. You should check them out. I haven’t honestly ventured out from there, though!

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