In 2018/19, Eredivisie giants Ajax captured the imagination and hearts of millions of football fans around the globe thanks to a memorable Champions League run due to their refreshing, effective and entertaining style of play. Although Ajax have been a big club for decades now, it is arguably this Champions League run that put them back on the map as one of the best current teams around, with a number of superstars donning the famous red & white. While many of those superstars have moved on to other challenges – Donny van de Beek, Hakim Ziyech, Matthijs de Ligt being the main names to depart – one of those who is still present at Ajax is left-back Nicolas Tagliafico. His performances in recent times have earned him high praise, which has led to many comparing his ability to other top left-backs in the game at the moment. While some will claim that he needs to play in a “better” league to ultimately prove himself, there is no denying that the Argentine has immense talent. This data analysis will provide an insight into the level of performance given by Tagliafico as we provide an analysis to compare his 2019/20 stats against those of other world-renowned left-backs.
This data analysis was undertaken with the consideration of eight left-backs from around the world, who were involved due to their consistent performances and praise gained over recent seasons. The players who will be involved in the data are as follows: Nicolas Tagliafico (Ajax), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Alex Telles (Porto), Alex Sandro (Juventus), Alex Grimaldo (Benfica), Andy Robertson (Liverpool), and Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich). All data that is used for analysis in this article comes from the players’ performances in their clubs’ respective leagues during the 2019/20 campaign. To build a better understanding about whether or not Tagliafico is up there with the best, a points system will be applied to each area of analysis. In each area, we will be able to rank the defenders based on the data, to see who is best in each area, earning them points based on their ranking. At the end of the report, a league table will be produced, displaying the total number of points accumulated by each player. The points available for each place can be seen below.
Although the modern game requires full-backs to be creative and offer something in the way of attack, their defensive attributes are still absolutely vital. Skills such as tackling and intercepting demonstrate many aspects of a player, including their strength, bravery, and the ability to anticipate an opponent’s move. In this segment, we will analyse three key defensive areas: recoveries, total defensive duels, and defensive duels in their own half.
The first graph displays the players’ rates of possession recovery – a term used to define the action of ending the opposition’s possession and starting a possession for their own team. The ability behind this skill is vital; many teams look to attack, or counterattack, in wide areas of the pitch, which is where it becomes most important for full-backs to intervene and win the ball back for their side. The chart below documents an average rate of recoveries per 90 minutes.
Straight away, we can see two stand-out players in this area – Tagliafico and Davies. Canadian Alphonso Davies, who has raised the eyebrows of many this season, ranks first with an impressive 12.78 recoveries per 90, which is more than any full-back in the Bundesliga for 2019/20. Tagliafico also impresses in this area, collecting 11.74 per 90. Of Davies’ 502 recoveries through the season, 226 have come as a result of Bayern Munich’s counterpressing in wide areas – somewhere that calls for the energy, dedication and speed possessed by Davies. This number of total recoveries is exceptional, as it shows he performs like this consistently – Tagliafico has 530 recoveries in total, more than anyone else on this list – 250 being down to counterpressing.
There is a sizeable gap between the top two and the remaining six. The best of the rest is Benfica defender Alex Grimaldo, who has 8.67 recoveries per 90 to his name. At the bottom of the scale, established Brazil International, and serial FIFA Team of the Year inductee, Marcelo, with just 6.16 recoveries per 90 this season for Real Madrid. Perhaps a sign of his decline at this stage of his career, Marcelo has just 146 recoveries all season.
The first of two areas focused on duels, here we take a look at a key component of a player within any position as it involves tackles and challenges with an opposition player to regain the ball. The following scatter graph shows us the average number of defensive duels attempted per 90, along with the success rate throughout the season. For this section, the ranking will be decided by the rate of success (%) rather than attempts.
When looking at the success side of things, we can see that Marcelo still has some undeniable talent in the defensive department. Coming out on top with a success rate of 73.68%, perhaps we have an answer as to why he still heavily features for Real Madrid despite the presence of exciting left-back, Ferland Mendy. It is worth noting, however, that Marcelo ranks bottom when looking at the number of duels attempted per 90 – but this doesn’t take away from his impressive success rate as it shows he rarely loses out on a challenge. Grimaldo (66.34%) and Tagliafico (65.79%) make up the top three, with the latter ranking in second in terms of number of total duels attempted.
Jordi Alba is the player with the lowest success rate of the group, winning just 53.41% of his defensive duels this season. Surprisingly, Liverpool’s flying left-back Andy Robertson finds himself just above Alba, with the Scotsman coming out on top in just 58.14% of his duels – luckily for him he has Virgil Van Dijk alongside him to assist.
Defensive Duels in Their Own Half
The second analysis of defensive duels considers those that took place in the players’ team’s half, rather than the whole pitch. In theory, this set of data will mostly come from duels undertaken against opponents who were attackers, and maybe midfielders – logically the defenders should be coming out on top most of the time here. The graph below shows the number of defensive duels each player has won and lost in their own half – points will be awarded in the following way: the larger the gap between the number of duels won and duels lost, the better. If a player has a larger distance between wins and losses, it shows that the player has a good success rate in this area, meaning he wins most of his duels in his own half.
Benfica’s Grimaldo is the surprising winner in this statistic, winning 128 defensive duels in his own half this season. Not only is that more than anybody else in the group, but he also has lost more than anybody else, with 67 in total, which gives him a win-to-loss difference of 61. However, his impressive number of victories gives him the edge over any other left back under consideration. Tagliafico, the man under the spotlight here, comes in a close second, with a win-to-loss gap of 56 – winning 105 defensive duels in his own half, demonstrating he has considerable reliability as a defensive full-back.
Jordi Alba found himself struggling again, with a gap of just eight, winning just 35. Credit where it’s due though, only Marcelo has lost less defensive duels in their own half than Alba, but the Spaniard doesn’t contribute with enough successful duels, especially for a top club like Barcelona.
With six areas to analyse in the attacking side of the game, this is where we really get a stronger understanding of what it takes to be a complete full-back in the modern game, as well as which names we would start to connect with such a term. All of the top teams who deploy formations with full-backs require them to be just as effective going forward as they are at defending. To see who is effective as an attacking full-back, we will look at the players’ contributions in dribbling, total passing accuracy, crossing, attacking progression, passes in attacking zones, and finally, their contribution to goals.
The dribbling of a full-back typically looks different to that of a winger as wingers usually dribble much higher up the pitch, looking to manoeuvre to create space for a shot or cross. Usually, the dribble of a full-back takes place a little deeper – normally either coming out of their defensive third, or crossing into the opposition half, and is used to start or build upon an attacking phase. Due to many top teams playing with system that demands a high and wide shape, full-backs often have the responsibility in carrying the ball that crucial 10-15 yards into the opponent’s half. The graph below shows the number of attempted dribbles per 90, along with a total success rate – players will be ranked based on the success rate primarily.
Right away, Alphonso Davies stands out thanks to his high average of attempted dribbles per 90, which stands at 6.43, far higher than anybody else in this list. This may explain his low success rate, as he comes in with just 56.25% success – it’s also worth noting that he is the youngest player on the list so this skill will only grow stronger and stronger with the right coaching.
Porto’s Alex Telles has the most impressive dribbling success rate here, boasting a rate of 75.93%, considerably more than Alex Sandro in second place (68.42%). Tagliafico also impresses in this skill – 65.52% success. In terms of success, Jordi Alba finds himself struggling again, coming in last with just 43.75% of his dribbles resulting in success.
In line with the idea of the most dominant teams in football playing in a high and wide shape with an attacking philosophy, most managers these days have incredibly high standards when it comes to passing. Take Pep Guardiola, for example. Before the club signed Ederson, they were on the lookout for a top-class goalkeeper who was more than reliable with his feet, to fit in with Pep’s style of play. They found that in Ederson, who has an incredible passing range at his disposal. We mentioned before that full-backs often have the responsibility to progress an attack, and the same applies here. While they rarely perform long passes to unlock a defence, their passing to wingers down the line, or to a midfielder who has a found a pocket of space in the middle, are priceless actions and often go overlooked. The bar chart below compares the overall passing accuracy of each player.
While Jordi Alba has struggled in other departments of this analysis, his passing qualities are irrefutable – a reflection of the philosophy in place at Barcelona and the standards that the players have to live up to. The Spaniard has an impressive passing rate of 88.09%, almost 2% higher than the player with the next best register of 86.27, Tagliafico.
At the other end of the scale, players like Alex Grimaldo (81.3%) and Alex Telles (79.34%) would arguably struggle in a team with a possession-based philosophy as they haven’t demonstrated the ability to consistently move the ball around the teammates without losing possession.
All the left-backs involved in this analysis are required by their clubs to be involved in attacks regularly, contributing with goal assists and chance creation. Most of the time, this sort of involvement comes out wide near the opponent’s 18-yard box, and crossing the ball into the box sometimes has much more of an impact than passing the ball around the edge of the box, waiting for the opposition to slip up and leave a gap to exploit. Attacking down the wings and crossing the ball is a much quicker method of attack but crossing itself is a specialist technique. Again, we look at the players’ crosses attempted per 90 minutes, next to their crossing accuracy, with the latter being the determining factor in the ranking system.
We can immediately see that Marcelo (4.64 per 90) and Robertson (4.96 per 90) are keen to put crosses more regularly than the remaining players, but the most consistently accurate crosser of the ball is in fact Ajax’s Tagliafico, with an accuracy rate of 48.53% – to put that in perspective, almost half of his crosses find the target player in the box. Alex Telles (29.17%) and Andy Robertson (32.21%) are indicators of how difficult it can really by to delivery accurate crosses game in, game out.
The terms used in this area analysis, progressive runs and progressive passes refer to a run or a pass that moves the ball forward by a considerable length, speeding the attack for the team. These stats were included as they are additional ways that full-backs can quickly progress an attack for their team – they often derive from creativity and innovation when successful. The bar chart below shows both the number of progressive runs and progressive passes made by each player per 90 minutes. Players will be ranked by a combined total of both statistics.
Across the board, progressive passes are clearly more common amongst full backs. This is likely down to the fact that progressive runs will leave the full-back out of position, leaving a danger to be exploited by the opposition if they regain possession. Ranking impressive high in both areas, Andy Robertson boasts the most overall progressive actions, with 15.38 per 90 in total. Jordi Alba was extremely close to this level, contributing with 15.12 actions per 90.
Tagliafico (10.54) was amongst those who offered a little less in this region – possibly down to team philosophy, player bravery, or player preference. Alex Telles seems to prefer other methods of attack also, with just 9.97 progressive actions per 90. A low combined score in this area doesn’t necessarily point towards weakness, but with the idea of full-backs being attacking and directly impacting their team attacking, a higher score could theoretically be better.
Passes in Attack
While we have discussed overall passing and crossing, there are many instances where full-backs are able to position themselves high up the pitch and play a contributing pass in such areas. This analysis looks at the number of forward passes per 90 as well as their passes into the final third per 90 – two indications of a player’s attacking desire. To rank the players, a combination of the two stats will be undertaken to discover who offers the most.
Marcelo (29.67) and Sandro (29.65) are clearly the two stand-out players in this area of the game, linking up with midfielders and strikers to build attacks more than anyone else in the higher zones of the pitch.
Alex Telles (20.18) and Nicolas Tagliafico (19.72) are the two with the lowest numbers in dangerous/attacking passing. Similar to the previous analysis, these stats don’t necessarily point to a weakness, but they could do – it depends what the reason for this is. It is likely due to their teams’ philosophies and styles of play.
While it is not a direct expectation that a full-back chips with assists, and even less so with goals, but a full-back who can contribute either or both naturally increases their own stock. It goes without saying that a team’s philosophy can impact this set of data more than any of the others discussed. Goals and assists will be combined to confirm the ranking order. The chart below is a representation of the players’ goal contributions in terms of goals and assists.
Quite clearly, Porto’s Alex Telles has quite the eye for goal – nine goals and five assists is a combination of stats that a midfielder would be proud of, and it shows the value the Brazilian adds to his club. Whether his goals come from open play or set pieces, there’s a skill to both methods which can’t be overlooked. While Robertson only has one goal for Liverpool, his total of seven assists is a fantastic contribution to any side, and shows the vision and creativity he possesses, as well as how much he understands the Liverpool system of play. Tagliafico, with three goals and four assists, proves he is as solid going forward as he is at the back, ranking as one of the most goal-influential players on the list.
While players like Sandro (zero goals and three assists) and Marcelo (one goal and three assists), rank near the bottom in this analysis, every assist to a goal holds an importance, and it is far from the job of a left-back to be providing goals.
As mentioned in the introduction of this report, each area of analysis gave us the opportunity to rank all eight players across a multitude of skills, collecting points based on their ranking in each of them. With all of the points collated, we can now present the final standings for the players involved in this data analysis. However, first, there are a few considerations to take note of before we get to that point. Obviously, we couldn’t involve every left-back in Europe’s top leagues, these seven were selected alongside Nicolas Tagliafico due to their presence in the 2019/20 season, and the reputation they have built themselves. It is also worth remembering that the scores were only taking from data that is presented in this report – there are a number of other areas that could’ve been involved and analysed. Below is the table of points for all eight players.
This analysis was undertaken to discover whether the hype around Ajax left-back Tagliafico was well-founded, or if he simply looks good due to the quality in the Ajax team. This isn’t an official, written in stone ranking of these left-backs as you have to also consider the leagues the play in and the systems their teams use. However, the fact that Tagliafico has the ability to consistently perform to benefit his team is an outstanding trait to have.
According to the data we have used, Tagliafico belongs in the category of world-class left-backs. His performances for Ajax this season have only built on his incredible contributions in the 2018/19 season, and it could only be a matter of time before a ‘bigger’ club comes knocking for the Argentine. While the table above isn’t definitive (due to there being other potential areas to analyse), it demonstrates that Tagliafico has strengths in several areas of his game – from defensive duels, to dribbling, to passing. If you get the chance to watch the Ajax player in action, you will notice his game understanding and composure on the ball, as well as the natural technical ability he oozes on a weekly basis.