Major League Soccer 2019: Statistically Best Central Defensive Midfielders – data analysis
Welcome back to the MLS data analysis series where I seek to find the statistically best players in the MLS 2019 Season. The first two instalments in this series have looked at the best goalkeeper, centre-backs, and full-backs in the MLS.
In this data analysis, I seek to find the best central defensive midfielders in MLS through the use of data and statistics. I’ll be comprehensively looking at statistics and exploring central defensive midfielders through the attacking, passing, and defensive lens.
Before we get started, it is important to review contexts for the analysis. The first important context regards the style of the central defensive midfielders that I am looking out for. Due to the large variability within a league with a team, its tactics, and the style of each player, I have decided to layout two styles so that equality in the analysis is achieved.
Before anything, I filtered the players to those who had played more than 20 games to ensure consistency and reliability in statistics. I will be looking for a primarily attacking central defensive midfielder, one who is moulded in the figure as Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong or Bayern Munich’s Thiago Alcantara. This midfielder is more involved in the attack and records impressive attacking and passing statistics.
Moreover, it should be regarded here that this is not a definitive analysis as to who are the best players. As always, the use of data is to be combined with the use of the “eye test”. The purpose of these articles is to find unpolished gems and pre-established crystals in MLS. As such, take this data analysis as an exploratory analysis for further scouting and tactical analysis.
In previous instalments, I often discussed the entire methodology – showcasing every metric and every data visualisation used to come to my final listings and the eventual chosen one. I want to showcase a different approach which is to showcase my final listings, briefly list why, and analyse the chosen one. Without further adieu, let’s start analysing.
League analysis for the attacking central defensive midfielder
For many teams in the MLS, the attacking central defensive midfielder is quite possibly their most important player. From orchestrating build-up to continually recycling possession, attacking central defensive midfielders are a great asset to teams. In addition to that, these players also provide teams with deep-lying creativity, press-resistance, and a psychological calm that can often be the defining factor between winning and losing.
For that reason, it becomes apt to find the best central defensive midfielders in the MLS and just exactly how the best mark himself out.
After analysing various passing and attacking metrics, the final five best attacking central defensive midfielders in the MLS are Eduard Atuesta from LAFC, Haris Medunjanin from FC Cincinnati, Marc Rzatkowski from New York Red Bulls, Jackson Yueill from San Jose Earthquakes, and Lee Nguyen from LAFC.
Let’s take a look at why these players marked themselves out prominently out of a pool of 51 players.
The first analysis looks at forward passes of the defensive midfielders. This helps us separate the players from those who play more forward passes which relates to better chance creation and attacking play for the team.
Here we see our five highlighted players in red. Medunjanin and Atuesta are the clear outliers from the pack recording 65+ passes per 90 with 22 and more of them being directed forward. Highlighted in the size of the dot is the accuracy of the forward passes. Clearly, we can see that in addition to playing the most forward passes among central defensive midfielders, Medunjanin and Atuesta record some of the highest accuracy rate in their forward passing.
In addition, we see Nguyen and the other members, the last red dot being Rzatkowski, performing poorly in consideration to Medunjanin and Atuesta. However, as we’ll see in the next analyses, these players have a reason for getting near the top.
After analysing forward passes, we have to analyse the different types of forward passes that exist: through balls, final third passes, and passes to the penalty area.
The first point of the analysis is to chart through balls and final third passes. Charting these two variables gives us a key insight into the passing efficacy of midfielders. Many midfielders play through balls. However, the placement of those through balls matter greatly.
Through balls that go to the touchline or sideways aren’t particularly helpful in the attacking sense. However, through balls that make their way to the final third passes have a great impact on the attack of a team as it directly places a teammate in a better position to contribute to the attack.
Here in this analysis, we see Medunjanin and Atuesta marking themselves out with high through passes per 90 and really high final third passes per 90 with an average success rate in their final third passes per 90 as highlighted with the size of the dot. We see the other players marking their effect on the data analysis.
Namely, Rzatkowski recorded 2.1 through passes per 90 with an average success rate in the final third passes per 90. Nguyen is near Rzatkowski – albeit being more productive with his passes – recording nine final third passes per 90 with fewer through passes per 90.
Yueill shows the greatest productivity with his passes as, despite recording average through passes per 90, he records fourth-highest final third passes per 90 amongst central defensive midfielders at 12 final third passes per 90.
In this analysis, we see an extension of the previous data analysis. Now, instead of recording the general metric of final third passes per 90, we are analyzing the more specific passes to penalty area per 90.
With all players, we see the player record average success rates indicated by the size of the dot. Again, we see Medunjanin and Atuesta marking themselves out with high rankings in both metrics. Behind the duo is Rzatkowski who again shows his efficiencies – recording the fourth-highest passes to penalty area per 90 with almost four passes to penalty area per 90.
This is greatly productive seeing how few passes per 90 made and how few of those were forward passes. We can also infer Rzatkowski’s productive with the fact that other players that recorded similar statistics barely make themselves noticeable and relevant.
Finally, we analyse more specific metrics – analysing final third passes and passes to the penalty area. The size of the dot indicates the accuracy rate for passes to the penalty area. Yet again, Medunjanin and Atuesta – I belive I’ve repeated this phrase one too many times – mark themselves as the best with average success rates. Yueill differentiates himself from the pact by recording high final third passes per 90 and about average passes to penalty area – an aspect which is still is impressive.
Rzatkwoski and Nguyen rank themselves as very creative and difference-makers from the pack by displaying a high number of passes to the penalty area from average final third passes per 90.
Finally, we analyse the actual tangible end-products of these passes with analysing second and third assists. In addition to the graph, the size of the dot indicates the expected assists per 90. The second assist is the pass before an assist occurs while the third assist is the pass before the second assist.
Analysing these metrics we see that Nguyen, Rzatkowski, and Medunjanin (stacked below Rzatkowski) rank top three in their involvement with assists. Due to this, we see their size – xA/90 statistics – being the largest among the pack. This tells us that Nguyen and Rzatkowski are central defensive midfielders who are often very active in attacking interplay.
This would offer an explanation of why Nguyen, Rzatkowski, and Medunjanin played fewer passes, forward and total, compared to the central defensive midfielders. The closer you are to the actual attacking activity, the fewer passes you need to make.
We also see Atuesta and Yueill record themselves as players who record good mixtures of both second and third assists. This indicates us that they are more traditional in their positioning as central defensive midfielders.
By this time, we’ve seen why Nguyen, Rzatkowski, Yueill, Medunjanin, and Atuesta were selected for further analysis. A note needs to be made here is that the reason for the exclusion of Mark-Anthony Kaye is that despite being termed as a central defensive midfielder by WyScout, Kaye is primarily a central midfielder. While I won’t be including him, it should do us good to make a reminder of his great statistical performance when we move onwards to normal midfielders.
Analysis of the chosen ones
After picking the central defensive midfielders to analyse in-depth, it now warrants to analyse the chosen defensive midfielders through the attacking and defensive lens.
We first start our analysis by analysing the metrics we showed in the previous sections.
Here we see the several metrics with the colour indicating the success rate in each pass category. Quite clearly, we see Medunjanin being the best through passer while Nguyen and Atuesta are the best at doing smart passes. On the other Yueill excels at progressive passes per 90 while Atuesta and Medunjanin perform strongly. Lastly, we see Atuesta perform as the best final third passer among the central defensive midfielders.
Here we see more attacking metrics for analysing central defensive midfielders. We see Atuesta and Nguyen perform the best in passing to the penalty area. On the other hand, we see Medunjanin and Nguyen perform excellently in the second assisting while Yueill performs the best third assists per 90. Lastly, we see Atuesta and Rzatkowski performing strongly in general successful attacking actions per 90.
Here we have some of the metrics that weren’t analysed before. We clearly see that Atuesta performs strongly in deep completions per 90 – as indicated by bar and colour. This is particularly of high importance as deep completions are those passes that put a player within 20 meters from the goalie meaning Atuesta, is on average, putting the highest, among the chosen players, passes that put players in high, goal-threatening positions.
No central defensive midfielder performs inherently successful in dribbling, however, it does seem that Atuesta performs a high number of dribbles – despite having poor success rates. Finally, we see Atuesta perform strongly in the offensive duels per 90 – adding more strength to his already complete attacking profile he seems to have made.
After that, we have to analyse the defensive statistics of these defensive midfielders. After all, these are central defensive midfielders and while they might be great at attacking, the defence is still their priority.
Here I have presented the most important defensive statistics. PAdj Interceptions is the most important as it records interceptions based on the possession of the player. This is important because players in defensive teams average less possession and high interceptions. This case is the opposite in attacking teams where you average greater possession of the ball and fewer interceptions. We see Atuesta perform the best in this statistic.
Secondly, we see Rzatkowski perform the best, followed by Yueill, in the PAdj Sliding tackles – a similar metric to PAdj interceptions. This metric is not as important but it is still possession adjusted which makes it easy to compare and infer. Next, we have successful defensive actions per 90 where we see Rzatkowski and Atuesta perform the best – a great indicator that these two central defensive midfielders are solid defensively.
Lastly, we see fouls per 90. While we see Atuesta’s great defensive performance, he also averages the greatest fouls per 90 among the central defensive midfielders.
Lastly, we analyze the last of defensive metrics. We see various defensive metrics with success rates. We see Rzatkowski average the best aerial duels per 90 while he and Atuesta perform the strongest in the defensive duels per 90. This tells that Rzatkowski is the best central defensive midfielder in defending aerially and on the ground with medium success rates
In interceptions per 90, we see Atuesta perform the best while the metric of shots blocked per 90, not the strongest indicator of defensive metrics, shows that Yueill and Atuesta perform the strongest.
After analyzing all the attacking and defensive metrics, I arrive at the conclusion that Atuesta is, statistically, the best attacking central defensive midfielder in the MLS. In the next section, we’ll see, through data, just how Atuesta puts up such strong attacking statistics as a central defensive midfielder
Explaining Atuesta’s attacking prowess
Part of Atuesta’s dominance in the attacking statistics stems from him playing in LAFC – the best possession team in the MLS last year. Their pattern of systematically scoring the most goals meant that a lot of their players rank high in statistical analysis and this is certainly the case with Atuesta.
However, not all of it is due to the team’s tactic and some of it stems from the player’s gifted ability – an aspect where Atuesta displays all the right signs.
Here is a passing radar map of his passes. The length of the area shows frequency while the colour indicates the success rate. Analysing the bottom two radars, we see that Atuesta is not a backward passer at all – most of his passes are directed forward. This tendency to consistently pass forward is an indicator as to why Atuesta performs so well in attacking statistics. Further up, while he is not as prolific in forward passing, he still maintains high attacking qualifications.
Analysing other advanced metrics, xGChain/90 and xGBuildup/90, we see Atuesta rank highly when comparing from all players! xGChain/90 is a metric that essentially awards the xG that a shooter records to those that helped the shooter get that xG. As such, this metric measures how involved a player is in creating and scoring goals. As we can see, Atuesta, a central defensive midfielder, records 0.87 xGChain/90 which is a very high involvement factor for a player that is a central defensive midfielder.
In addition to xGChain/90, we also see Atuesta rank highly in xGBuildup/90 – however, we are unable to see the bar because he’s so further up and there’s only him that records the same statistic.
However, his high involvement is very significant – as always. xGBuildup/90 is a metric that measures the involvement of a player in buildups that lead to xG. It is a bit different from xGChain as it takes away shots and dribbles and only focuses on build-up play.
Even in this statistic, Atuesta ranks highly – near 0.64 – showing his ability to contribute a team’s attacks through various methods – even in the buildup.
Seeing these statistics, it should be a no-brainer as to why Atuesta records what he does. His innate ability to always look forward, be involved in complicated movements that lead to shots and his own ability to use his passes to generate goal-threat is the reason why Atuesta is our best attacking central defensive midfielder.
In conclusion, through the comprehensive data analysis of central defensive midfielders, we find that Eduard Atuesta from LAFC is the best attacking central defensive midfielder. Just about ranking the best in every attacking and passing statistics, Atuesta is a gem in the making and LAFC should be very pleased with his development in the last year.
In the next instalment of this series, we’ll analyse the same central defensive midfielders through a defensive mindset to see the best defensive central defensive midfielder.