In modern football, full-back often plays an important role in both attacking and defending. Full-backs in Liverpool and Manchester City offer great help to the team. They can offer width or even get inverted in attacking to help progress or build up the play. In defending, they try to force the opponent to the side and isolate the opponent, pushing the matchup away from the support near the sideline. It’s no exception in the EFL Championship. Full-backs also play a crucial role here.
In this data analysis, we shall analyse the data and statistics of full-backs in the EFL Championship. The players will be judged purely on data and statistics and our analysis will look at how they perform in terms of different aspects. The data analysis will include only players that play for over 900 minutes on the pitch.
The first metric we look at is defensive duels. As players in the back, defensive duels are fundamental and essential for full-backs. Trying to dispossess the opponent and preventing the playing from progressing are defensive duels for. It’s kind of a positional responsibility for full-backs to close down their opponents. Nevertheless, the tendency for committing into defensive duels varies from team to team.
Some teams prefer to dispossess the opponents by sitting off and forcing the opponents to give away possession, while others may take on an aggressive approach to challenge the ball. Thus, in the final selection and explaining process, this should be taken into account.
Now let’s take a look at the stats in the scatter plot. Cameron Carter-Vickers from Luton, Dominic Iorfa from Sheffield Wednesday, Kal Naismith from Wigan Athletic stand out amongst all these full-backs. However, they play more in the central defender position and only play four, three and four games respectively as full-backs. Thus, these three players will not go into our final list though they possess a great number.
Then we keep searching for players that stand out. Moses Odubajo and Liam Palmer from Sheffield Wednesday have good stats. Odubajo has 10.56 defensive duels per 90 with the success rate of 61.68%, while Palmer has 9.46 defensive duels with the success rate of 65.74%. Pedro Pereira from Bristol City, Eric Lichaj from Hull City, and Luke Ayling from Leeds United outline a quarter of a circle in the upright quadrant. Their stats in defensive duels and success rate all exceed the average 7.43 in defensive duels and 61.08% in the success rate. But it should be kept in mind that Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United employs an aggressive approach that demands players to challenge the ball more. Hence, when coming to the final list let’s not forget about the team style that affects players’ playing method.
PAdj Sliding tackles and PAdj interceptions
The second metrics we’ll be looking at are sliding tackles and PAdj interception. We use sliding tackles and interceptions here as the measurement for disrupting and dispossessing the opponent. Before diving into details, let me explain and define a concept here. PAdj here stands for possession-adjusted, taking possession values into account. Since some teams might have more possession and some have less, it is not enough to just use pure sliding tackles and interceptions per 90 as metrics. Those teams that have less possession may have more defensive actions, so it may be more reasonable and impartial to use Padj metrics. After using PAdj as the basic, we will now dive into the metrics we are using.
From the scatter plot we can see that a player stands out. That’s Ben Williams from Barnsley. He has the most PAdj. Interceptions, 11.54, and sliding tackles, 1.92, among all full-backs. However, it should be noticed that Barnsley have their unique style of defending, which is to try to win possession by using a riskier approach. They have 89.87 recoveries per 90, ranking the 1st in the Championship. Thus, the interceptions of Barnsley’s players tend to be more than those of the other teams’ players, if you look at Clarke Oduor from Barnsley in the lower right area of the scatter plot, with 11.23 in PAdj. Interceptions, ranking the 2nd amongst all the full-backs.
Apart from Ben Williams, there are also some players who catch my attention. Ezgjan Alioski from Leeds United, with 5.8 in PAdj. interceptions and 1.88 in PAdj. sliding tackles, and Elliott Bennett from Blackburn also excel at PAdj. sliding tackles with the stats of 1.86. Then let’s see some other players from the top right of the graph. Some well-known names like Matty Cash, Joe Bryan and Darnell Fisher appear in the top right quadrant, who in this season perform at a high level in their respective club, exceeding the average of PAdj. interceptions and tackles, which is 6.931 and 0.695 respectively.
After seeing that stats from the defensive side, let’s focus on the attacking attributes. Nowadays, modern football requires more participation from full-backs in the attacking phase. And a classical attacking contribution of full-backs is to cross to find targets in the box, and that’s what we are going to dive into in this section. We will see from the statistics point of view on how these full-backs perform in terms of crossing.
Clarke Oduor stands out in terms of the accuracy of 57.14%, with 1.32 crosses per 90. 3 spots of Jack Hunt, Tommy Smith and Darnell Furlong stay at the outer round of all the spots. These players have significant numbers among all these full-backs. Hunt has a high accuracy of 51.32%, while Smith has 48.28%. Furlong has the most crosses, 5.27 per 90. However, the number of crosses and the accuracy of crosses are also influenced by the team style and tactics. Teams like Bristol City attack down the wings, and this would help increase the crossing of players like Jack Hunt.
Furthermore, the accuracy could also be affected if the receivers don’t get in the right position and some crosses are aimed for winning corners. Thus, only looking at the crossing would not be enough to judge a full-back’s attacking contribution. We will now move on to the next section to see some more significant metrics.
Getting the ball into a more favourable position
Since crossing is not enough for stating the contribution in attacking, we will now take a look into two metrics that have more significance, the progressive passes and deep completed passes per 90. Before looking at the standing-out players, let me first clarify these two concepts here.
Firstly, progressive passes are forward passed that attempt to advance a team significantly closer to the opponent’s goal. This means that a progressive pass will try to place the ball into a more advance area, which is favourable to the attacking side. Deep completed passes also have the same function as progressive passes. Deep completed passes mean passes, including crosses, which are targeted to the zone within 20 meters of the opponent goal. Thus, deep completed passes put the ball into a dangerous area, which is also advantageous to the attacking side.
After explaining those metrics, now it’s time to search for those excellent laterals in this aspect:
In this scatter plot, we don’t only use deep completed passes and progressive passes per 90, but also introduce a third variable, which is the progressive passes accuracy. We use the colours to represent the accuracy. When the colour is becoming darker blue, it means the accuracy is higher. When the colour is approaching more to the dark red, the accuracy is poorer. Thus there are actually 3 metrics in this one graph.
We can see from the scatter plot that some big names are performing evidently well in the graph. Ryan Manning, Jack Hunt, Tommy Smith stand out tipping the up right corner, while Smith’s accuracy is 81%, the third-best in the graph. Manning has 12.6 in progressive passes per 90 and 2.63 deep completed passes per 90. Hunt has 12.37 and 2.51 in progressive passes and deep completed passes respectively. Leeds United’s full-back-duo, Ezgjan Alioski and Luke Ayling also possess some fabulous stats too. Ayling has the most progressive passes per 90 amongst all laterals, 13.63, and he also ranks the 1st in terms of the accuracy, 82.83%. We can also see Marvin Johnson in the 1st quadrant, with the most deep completed passes per 90, with 2.79 in stats. However, he deploys as a full-back for only 2 matches. Thus he will be taken out of our consideration.
The last metrics we’ll be using are xA and key passes per 90. xA stands for expected assists, and a key pass is a pass that immediately creates a clear goal-scoring opportunity for a teammate who in turn fails to score. Hence these two metrics can measure chance-creating performance for those laterals:
From the graph, the player that distinctly catches our attention is Ryan Manning. He has the highest xA per 90 amongst all the players in the graph, while he is also the second-best in terms of key passes per 90, with stats of 0.19 and 0.67 respectively. On the right bottom area corner, we can see Steve Seddon, who has the most key passes per 90 here, which is 0.79. Then let’s move back to the first quadrant. Names like Ezgjan Alioski and Tommy Smith appear again in the same area of the graph. Alioski has 0.64 key passes per 90 while Smith has 0.16 xA per 90. We won’t include Stewart Downing in the list since he only deploys as a full-back for 6 matches.
After seeing a bunch of metrics and scatter plots, now it’s time to recognize the best full-backs statistically in Championship. We’ll be selecting 5 of them as the best full-backs in terms of the stats in the league. However, before we come to the conclusion, it’s necessary to clarify that statistics only serves as the output of some certain behaviours of a player. Team styles and instructions of the head coach also deeply influence the playing methods that a player employs. Therefore, low defensive stats like tackles and interceptions don’t necessarily mean that the player doesn’t have the ability to perform well in those facets. What we are trying to find here is using metrics as a reference to see if a player performs well in certain aspects.
Now let’s see the final shortlist of the best five full-backs in Championship. Though it would be hard to select five players out of a bunch of excellent full-backs, we still manage to pick five of them. The standard here is, to have a versatile performance, in terms of attacking and also defending. Those who frequently appear on the first quadrant of the graph, which means their statistics surplus the average both horizontally and vertically, and don’t appear much on the third quadrant, which means the statistics are below the average both vertically and horizontally, will be first taken into consideration. Then, players with extraordinary spots on the graph would also be considered.
Now, we come to the final list: Luke Ayling, Ezgjan Alioski, Pedro Pereira, Ryan Manning and Tommy Smith. We will present a radar chart, in which we use different colours to represent different players, to finalise the attributes of them:
Luke Ayling: From the graph, we can see that he excels at progressive passes and Padj interceptions. Playing as a right-back in Leeds United, he contributes a lot of long and short forward passes to get the play forward. What’s more, he also tends to anticipate and to be the first on the ball. That’s what Leeds United requires since they want to dominate in possession and try to regain possession as soon as possible. And he does perform well in this part. He has the most Padj. sliding tackles amongst the best 5, which is 1.12.
Ezgjan Alioski: The left-back in Leeds United. He is a skilful player and also an aggressive player. He tries to challenge the ball whenever he has the opportunities. This helps Leeds regain a lot of possession too. Nevertheless, sometimes his tackles are reckless and pointless that will eventually lead to foul. He now has 7 yellow cards and 0.32 yellow cards per 90, ranking the 5th in the league.
Pedro Pereira: Though he plays more in the midfield area, he performs extremely well when playing as a right-back, scoring a goal with an assist when deployed as a right-back. Bristol City is not so aggressive in defending, while Pereira is an exception. His duels contribute in winning possession and disrupting the opponent’s attack for the team, as we can see from the radar chart. His Padj. interceptions, which is 8.68, helps Bristol City win back a lot of possession.
Ryan Manning: A 23-year-old left-back. In Queens Park Rangers, he is one of the regular 11 in the team. His contribution in attacking is remarkable, especially his crossing and key passes that create many chances for his teammates. He is also a taker for set-pieces, delivering with a good accuracy. His deep completed passes stands out in the best 5, which is 2.63 per 90. In defending, he also concentrates well and always keeps an eye on his matchup and the surrounding, even though his stats are not that outstanding compared to the other 4.
Tommy Smith: The right back in Stoke City, not that standing-out in the radar chart. He loves to play long since they are encouraged to and they will combat for aerial duel. Players like Sam Vokes will do layoffs after the long ball. He is also a taker in set-pieces and able to give key passes to create chances. He has 2.35 deep completed passes per 90, ranking the 2nd amongst the best 5. His defensive contribution is okay for his team with his defensive duels.
So now we’ve selected the best five. However, let’s keep in mind that this data analysis serves only as a reference to find good full-backs. The traditional eye-watching approach is still needed to find players like Matty Cash and Yuri Ribeiro etc. who also shines on the pitch while in the stats they don’t stand out that much. Also, to fully comprehend how a player performs more metrics might need to be used, whereas some metrics don’t necessarily show the quality of some players. Thus I’ve cut some metrics off, which may not be universal criteria to judge a full-back. To conclude, it’s quite intriguing to look at the data side of thing and we’ll see who’s going to fit in the English Premier League very soon.