Major League Soccer 2019: Statistically Best Full-Backs – data analysis
As life in the new quarantine-based world sets in, it frees up analysts to use data more and more to fully introspect leagues and players. One such analysis concerns this series: finding the statistically best players in the Major League Soccer in the 2019 season. Last time, we extensively covered goalkeepers and two centre-backs. For a refresher, Portland Timbers’ Steve Clark starred as the goalkeeper while LAFC’s Eddie Segura and Minnesota United’s Ike Opara were chosen as the centre-backs.
Before doing an extensive analysis, I want to clarify some nuances and queries. This is not intended to be the definitive list of the best players. Far from that, it is supposed to be an analysis that shows us the rough gems and polished diamonds. The data is a reference guide for further scouting.
From Liverpool’s full-backs that attack to Manchester City’s full-backs that are inverted, the role and importance of full-back. As such, it becomes important to analyze full-backs with more depth and detail than ever.
In addition, there are certain characteristics that I am looking for in the full-backs. Just like with the centre-backs, there was one more attacking centre-back and one more defending centre-back, I will be analyzing for two different types of full-backs. One will be more attacking while the other will be more defensive. This allows us to fairly evaluate, through data, players and playing styles as not all teams playing attacking football or defensive football.
Additionally, the sample size for the data analyses will be players who have played more than 20 games. This strict sample is so that we are only considering those who have put consistent performances.
Without further adieu, let us analyze the statistically best full-backs.
The Attacking Full-Back
Every basic attacking data analysis has to start with analyzing passing metrics. As an attacking full-back, we want our full-back making many passes with a high accuracy rate. In addition to that, we would also want the full-back making many forward passes with a high accuracy rate.
As we can see straight away, Tristan Blackmon stars as the best forward passer full-back. This is mainly due to him being playing in LAFC – the league’s best possession-based team. However, other names include Auro and Diego Polenta. Other names were duly recorded.
Apart from looking at forward passes, another strong indicator of an attacking full-back is her/her dribbles. Dribbling near the touchlines is a traditional characteristic of attacking full-backs. By beating a man/woman by themselves, they are able to advance the team play and free the winger. With a free winger and an established full-back, teams can single-handedly wreck a lot of damage on teams.
Here we see Latif Blessing topping this metric. Shortly near him are Shea Salinas and Ali Adnan among others.
In addition to assessing the dribbles metric of full-backs, it is equally as important to evaluate the crossing abilities of full-backs. Recent full-backs such as Liverpool‘s Trend Alexander Arnold, Andrew Robertson, and Bayern Munich‘s Alphonso Davies have shown just how beneficial having a full-back who knows how to cross well can have. Crossing adds another threat from a team and well-versed routines on an end of an excellently-served up cross is a recipe for a goal.
Here we see crosses from the right per 90 vs crosses from the left per 90. There are going to be clear outliers on the top end and bottom-right end as some full-backs are excellently talented in their crossing skills. The colour here indicates how many crosses the full-backs make with red quantifying a higher frequency and blue quantifying a lower frequency. The size of the data point quantifies the frequency of the crosses that lands in the goalie box.
We see clear outliers with full-backs such as Romain Métanire, Jorge Moreira, and Brad Smith. However, we also want full-backs from the middle as these full-backs are showing versatility in their crossing by crossing from the left and right. Obviously, we still regard high standards in terms of their colouring and size which leads us to names like Jermaine Jones, Salinas, and Nick DeLeon.
Another component of the game of an attacking full-back is their ability to get into the box. While goal activity is not a tell-all of a performance of a full-back, goal metrics allow us an insight on just how efficient and/or active a full-back is in the final third.
On this graph, we have shots per 90 versus touches in the box per 90. In addition, red indicates higher shots on target while grey indicates lower shots on target. Finally, the size of the data points indicates the full-backs’ goal conversion. Ideally, we’d want higher touches per 90, higher shots per 90, and relatively above-average shots on target and goal conversion. Obviously, full-backs are not strikers and much is not to be expected. However, it is important that we distinguish those full-backs who are above average in their goal metrics.
We immediately see some familiar names that show themselves as outliers: Salinas, DeLeon, and Blessing. In addition, we see names like Yohan Croizet and Ryan Hollingshead that show themselves above average in their goal activity.
A final aspect is evaluating the activity of full-backs. We have stated that we want our attacking full-back to be attacking in his endeavours and as such, we would want a very active full-back – one that is making overlapping runs, consistently providing width, and making clever plays.
Here we see successful attacking actions per 90 versus progressive runs per 90. This analysis allows us to analyze just how intense and how successful in his attacking endeavours the full-back is. In addition, the colour shading represents dribbles per 90. This has been analyzed before but in this context, it shows the activity of a full-back. In addition, the size of the data points gives us how many touches in the box the full-back had per 90.
In ideal terms, we want high progressive runs with high successful attacking actions being achieved. In addition, a relatively high dribble per 90 coupled with above-average touches in the box per 90 would complete our profile.
We see a clear outlier – Salinas – accompanied by other full-backs such as Croizet and Jones.
After the conclusive analysis, six players were selected finally: DeLeon, Blessing, Hollingshead, Salinas, Jones, and Croizet.
To pick the best player between these six players, we need to now analyze these players’ attacking and defensive attributes in particular. The first analysis needs to be done on the passing metrics – primarily the distribution of forward passes and its accuracy.
Here we see Jones putting up consistent statistics for the forward passing and short/medium passing metrics. On the other hand, Blessing performs similarly, more outstandingly in the forward and short/medium pass frequency metrics. Additionally, we see Hollingshead perform solidly – performing the best in the forward passes per 90.
Analyzing each passing metric will be rather tedious and take much time. To conserve the depth in analysis and save time, we will be analyzing the index of the players in these passing metrics: successful forward, successful short/medium, successful back, successful lateral, and successful long passes per 90. When we analyze the index, we are analyzing what is the rank of the player in one particular statistic among his position.
Here we see the indices for each player in each passing metric. The colour is there to stand as a reference guide. Red and yellow colours indicate better indices while green colours indicate average or poor indices.
We see that Hollingshead is the best forward passer while Jones is the best backward and long passer. Blessing is the best at passing laterally and short/medium length-wise. At the far right, we see the final passing profile for these full-backs. We see Hollingshead record the highest passing profile among the full-backs.
In fact, if one closely analyzes his row, Hollingshead puts up indices that are either the best or near the top making him a consistently accurate full-back.
Here we see the activity statistics of the full-backs. We see that Croizet ranks solidly throughout and as does Jones. Blessing performs strongly in the dribbles per 90 while DeLeon performs strongly in the touches in the box per 90. Finally, Salinas puts outstanding numbers in just about every metric.
Now we will take a look at the defensive aspects to see which full-back is the best.
We see Hollingshead and DeLeon perform consistently well in all the statistics. Blessing performs outstandingly in defensive duels per 90 while Croizet performs excellently in aerial duels per 90.
While interceptions should not be considered as strongly, it still merits to analyze those statistics. We see that Blessing and Croizet commit the most fouls while Hollingshead commits the least. Yet again, we see Hollingshead come strong in interceptions per 90 and interceptions per opp 30.
Lastly, we analyze tackles and successful defensive actions per 90. We see that DeLeon performs exceptionally well in tackles per 90 and tackles per opp 30 – perhaps too well for the individual abilities. We see that Salinas also parallels the same and Hollingshead comes out on top with the best successful defensive actions per 90.
After a conclusive analysis, it seems that Hollingshead from FC Dallas is statistically the best-attacking full-back in the MLS. As one reviews all the graphs and scatter plots, Hollingshead consistently ranks near the top and is consistent in his attacking and defending metrics. Hollingshead’s main strengths lie in his strong passing metrics while performing above-average in other attacking and defensive metrics.
Here we see a radar graph of Hollingshead’s ranks in these statistics from the full-backs in the MLS. Clearly, Hollingshead brings some of the best attacking and defensive actions in the MLS.
The Defensive Full-Backs
Analyzing defensive full-backs, as was seen with the centre-backs, is always hard as defensive statistics are influenced by the style of the team much more than are attacking statistics. In this case, analysis of defensive statistics has to be very comprehensive to get a full picture of the player.
The first analysis needs to be on the duels, aerially and on the ground, and what full-backs do the best in these duels. A strong full-back is a key to success for many teams. Having their flanks defended well eases tension and pressure from the centre-backs which face the biggest task of defending against attacks.
In this graph, we see clear outliers of those who not only engage in more aerial duels but are also more successful. We see names such as Bacary Sagna and Brandon Bye accounting a lot of aerial duels and recording high rates of success. Similar trends are seen with other outliers, shown in blue.
In this graph, we get to see which full-backs are strong on the ground. Here we see new names like Hassani Dotson and Russell Canouse that are very active in making defensive duels per 90 and recording average success rates.
In addition to that, we need to analyze other defensive metrics. A key defensive metric is successful defensive actions per 90. While it is influenced by the style of the team plays, a greater part is attached to the player’s success in his actions. As such, it is a fairly good indicator.
Here we see the successful defensive actions per 90 for full-backs and we see one clear outlier, Canouse, who records 10.090 successful defensive actions per 90. Other names, right below Canouse, were also recorded.
Another metric – that is flawed to a great degree but it still merits to analyze – is tackles.
In this graph, we see the true tackle rate being graphed – a much better success rate that accounts for challenges lost and fouls committed rather than the normal tackle success rate. Jorge Villafaña tops the chart here with other names like Canouse making themselves apparent.
Lastly in this graph, we get to see, with some limitations, the aggressiveness of a defensive full-back with metrics that are per opposition 30. These metrics measure tackles and interceptions for every 30 possessions for the opposition. Higher numbers indicate a much more aggressive defensive full-back.
We see outliers like Villafaña showing that they are tackling and intercepting more compared to the other full-backs indicating their defensive strength. Their success is a metric that I do not have access to and, again, these metrics have to be taken in the context that tackles/interceptions are influenced by the style of the team.
After the conclusive analysis, five players were selected finally: Aaron Herrera, Jorge Moreira, Justin Morrow, Jorge Villafaña, and Russell Canouse.
With these five players, comprehensive analysis in their defensive statistics and attacking statistics need to be undertaken to finally pick our defensively-best full-back.
First, we will analyze fouls and successful defensive actions per 90 as they provide the closest analytics about a player – and the player only. The influence of their team is present but is at the least with these two statistics.
We see Moreira and Canouse record the highest fouls per 90, but paradoxically, also record the highest successful defensive actions per 90. Morrow records the lowest fouls per 90 and is decent at the metric of successful defensive actions per 90.
The next analysis will include analyzing the tackles and interceptions.
Here we see Villafaña do very well in the tackles metric while Canouse performs the best in the interceptions metric. Morrow is the best – with Villafaña – in the tackle rate while Moreira and Herrera both put average numbers in each statistic.
The final analysis is of the basic defensive statistics – aerial and defensive duels.
We see Canouse performs the best all the departments while Moreria performs the best in defensive duels per 90. In addition, Morrow performs excellently in the metric of aerial duels per 90 while Villafaña rather underperforms in just about every statistic.
Having analyzed the defensive statistics, we now turn our attention to the attacking statistics – it is just as important for our defensive full-back to have good attacking prowess in him as well.
First, and foremost, we analyze the passing metrics of these full-backs.
Here we see Canouse perform the best in the short/medium passes per 90 while Morrow performs the best in the long pass accuracy. Moreira follows up with the best long passes per 90 while Herrera comes second best for many of the statistics. Villafaña performs rather average for all of these statistics.
Here we see Canouse records a high accuracy in his lateral passes. That makes sense as his average pass length is the shortest. Morrow records the highest back passes per 90 while Moreira records the highest lateral passes per 90 while Herrera ranks top as his passes are the longest.
Next, we analyze the intensity of the full-back in the attack.
Here we see Moreira performs the best in almost every statistic showing that he is very much attacking-minded as much as he is defensive. Villafaña records second in the successful attacking actions per 90. Herrera performs second in dribbles per 90 while Morrow performs excellently in the progressive runs per 90 and dribble accuracy.
Lastly, we will analyze the crosses as for a full-back, the crossing is an integral activity.
Moreira performs excellently in the crosses per 90 and crosses to the goalie box per 90. Villafaña records high crosses per 90 and the highest cross accuracy with better than average crosses to the goalie box per 90. Lastly, Morrow performs average in every statistic save for the crosses to the goalie box per 90 where he records the second-best statistic.
After a conclusive analysis, it seems that Moreira from Portland Timbers is statistically the best defensive full-back in the MLS. As one reviews all the graphs and scatter plots, Moreira consistently ranks near the top and is consistent in his defending and attacking metrics.
Moreira’s main strengths lie in his duels and successful defensive actions per 90. While he does average 1.4 fouls per 90, and it is a point of concern, the statistic, in midst of the other strong metrics, indicates that this is something that the player can probably improve on. Moreira’s attacking statistics are also good with his main strength lying in crossing and passing.
In conclusion, as seen with the data analysis, our two full-backs are Jorge Moreira from Portland Timbers playing as right-back and Ryan Hollingshead from FC Dallas as left-back in MLS’ statistically best squad for the 2019 season. Our data analysis has shown that these players were the best for their respective positions for the MLS last season.
The next instalment in this mini-series will cover exclusively on midfielders. That will be broken into central defensive midfielders and attacking midfielders – allowing us to be more comprehensive and fair in our analysis.