Alternatives to James Tarkowski for West Ham – data analysis
West Ham made a very public attempt in the summer transfer window to lure Burnley centre-back James Tarkowski away from Turf Moor to the London Stadium. After a disappointing 2019/20 season, it was clear that the Hammers needed to invest substantially in a new centre-back, along with a full-back, which they did by bringing in right-back Vladimír Coufal. After being rebuffed by Burnley with a third bid rumoured to be £31 million, with it being suggested Burnley wanted £50 million, West Ham seemed to take a more scattergun approach and were linked with dozens of centre-backs in the days leading up to deadline day. Despite this, no new centre-back has arrived to support the current crop of Angelo Ogbonna, Issa Diop, and Fabian Balbuena, and instead, it looks like winger Said Benrahma will be moving to East London.
West Ham have been culprits of bringing in players that don’t fit their needs in the past, and if they’re waiting until January to bring in the right player, then that’s a sign of maturity from the board. But, having forked out large money on transfer fees and/or big wages in recent seasons for the likes of Sebastien Haller, Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko and Jack Wilshere, as well as the impending transfer of Benrahma, West Ham may not have massive amounts to be spending.
As a result, this data analysis will offer options at different price tags, from the amount they offered for Tarkowski, right down to potentially less than a couple of million. However, we have focused on using data to identify a centre-back with similar traits to the Burnley centre-back, or at the very least those with the potential to become a player of similar ilk.
To find these players I used Total Football Analysis’ xGold system, and Sathish Prasad V T created the visuals.
Tarkowski is a well-rounded defender who is very comfortable in possession with an excellent passing range. Whilst he is calm on the ball, he doesn’t play a huge role in structuring build-up with short passes, and that likely comes down to Burnley’s principles of play as much as it does down to Tarkowski’s ability. However, his high-ranking amongst his league peers for through passes per 90 and passes to the penalty area, show someone who has the eye for a longer pass (as is indicated by his long ball ratio and average pass length), rather than someone who is going to control the tempo from the back line. He has a quick release on these longer passes, and will catch opposition defences out of balance should he see an opportunity for a long pass into a target player, or behind the opposition defence for an attacker to run onto.
Defensively, he is solid aerially as he is in standard defensive duels, whilst his PAdj interceptions and shots blocked per 90 indicate his strength in his game-reading. His timing in tackles is outstanding, and he has grown into a presence in Burnley’s back line, who organizes his defence well, and unsurprisingly his performances have led to being called into the England squad.
Kortney Hause – The ideal alternative (£20million +)
Hause will be well known to most readers here, having been a regular in the Aston Villa side under Dean Smith. He is pretty strong across the board as a defender. He stands at 1.9m tall with a strong build, whilst he has good pace and is comfortable on the ball. Regardless of where Hause hailed from, he wouldn’t necessarily come cheap, but of course, there will be that English premium on his price tag. Transfermarkt values him at £5.85 million, but with two years and a club option for a year extension left on his current deal, he could realistically go for four or even five times this amount. This would put him in a similar price bracket to what West Ham had offered Burnley for Tarkowski, and should they look to fill this space in the squad in January, this would likely be a far easier deal to broker.
One potential issue is that like Ogbonna, Hause is left-footed. Some coaches have an issue with playing two left-footed centre-backs together, and as Ogbonna is by far West Ham’s strongest centre-back right now, this could be a problem with this option.
If we break down aspects of his game in terms of where he ranks against the rest of the league’s centre-backs, Hause has a higher long ball ratio than Tarkowski, as well as being an all-round more progressive passer of the ball. Tarkowski’s average pass length is higher than Hause but then, as mentioned earlier, Tarkowski isn’t going to engage in as many shorter passes in build-up play at the back. Hause is an all-round more accurate passer of the ball, despite a greater ratio of forward passes, and is a more varied passer too.
Whilst attacking and creativity isn’t necessarily an area of the game traditionally associated with centre-backs, with Tarkowski’s ability to hit accurate longer passes into dangerous areas, as well as his calmness in possession meaning he ranks respectably for dribbles per 90 and dribble completion percentage, and his threat from set-pieces meaning he ranks highly for touches in the box per 90 too, it’s relevant to see if we can find centre-backs with a relatively similar output.
This is really the only area of the game Tarkowski has an edge over Hause with Hause ranking lower in passes to the penalty area per 90 and through passes per 90, as well as dribble completion. But the centre-back still ranks well amongst his peers, certainly enough not to let Tarkowski’s slight edge here put any club off of the Villa defender. Hause might have a noticeably lower dribble success rate, but he still appears to be press-resistant and a reliable performer in playing out from the back.
Defensively, they are almost identical, with minimal differences across the board. Hause is dominant both aerially and with defensive duels, whilst he records a high number of Padj interceptions and shots blocked per 90. In fact, it’s highly unlikely there are two centre-backs so evenly matched here. Both are very well-rounded and are reliable and consistent performers out of possession, and Hause’s higher price tag not only comes with him being English but also for being Premier League proven.
Niklas Stark – A slightly cheaper alternative (£10 million +)
Stark is an interesting prospect, having been capped for the national team for the first time last year, yet since Bruno Labbadia arrived at Hertha, he has seen his first-team opportunities limited due to the Head Coach’s obvious preference for a pairing of Jordan Torunargiha and Dedryck Boyata. As such, there is potential for a cut-price deal to be struck for a centre-back who still has plenty of upside.
Stark is far from perfect, and his defensive statistics are a little concerning, however, there has been a sharp decline in this area of his game since Labbadia took over the reins at Hertha (for example he won just 20% of his aerial duels in the Bundesliga restart at the end of last season), and as cliche, as it is, there’s a strong chance regular football under a manager who believes in him could see this part of his game show an upturn in form.
However, beginning with their passing output and we can see that Tarkowski is unsurprisingly a more frequent long ball passer, however, Stark is a more forward-thinking, ball progressing centre-back, however, still has a penchant for a long pass, and as such perhaps even has an edge over Tarkowski in terms of his passing ability.
If we look at the comparison between Tarkowski and Stark’s attacking and creativity there is a huge difference in the amount of dribbles each player attempts with the former attempting far more, but aside from this one particular metric, which certainly isn’t a deal-breaker when looking for a centre-back, there are smaller differences in their rankings for each metric, which aren’t startlingly obvious, but it’s clear Stark plays a higher amount of key passes.
So over these past two comparisons it appears Stark if anything is equal to, if not potentially superior to Tarkowski, and there’s an argument to be made that in possession this is the case. However, with them being centre-backs there is obviously an emphasis needing to be placed on their actual defensive work as well.
As alluded to earlier, this is where the key difference lies between these two, and if you can avoid scoffing at the following comparison, there is potentially reason for this difference, and that a potential suitor shouldn’t be turned off of Stark as such.
There is a major difference in every area other than fouls per 90 and defensive duels per 90. With any player, it’s important to look at a large context of games to see if this has always been the case or if the player has had a dip in form, and this is certainly the case with Stark. Firstly if we look at aerial duels, Stark is 1.9m tall, and whilst being tall doesn’t automatically make your aerially dominant, it definitely doesn’t hurt. Before last season, if we look at his form over the previous four seasons he was averaging a 57.78% win percentage on his aerial duels, where last season that dropped to 54.5%. Tarkowski, on the other hand, had a 71% win percentage on his aerial duels last season, which was a huge step up from his previous four seasons where he had averaged a 62.25% win percentage, which is still higher than Stark, but far smaller than the 17% difference in their respective win percentages last season. Whilst Stark had a poor season defensively, Tarkowski had a strong one.
There are reasons for this season of Stark’s too. Hertha had a bizarre season, with four different managers, and on top of this uncertainty, Stark found himself missing out to others and didn’t nail down a starting position. Without a consistent run of games, on top of the mess Hertha found themselves in, Stark’s defensive output was disappointing compared to previous seasons. It’s fair to say the above image doesn’t give the full story, and although he isn’t quite at Tarkowski’s level defensively, he isn’t as far away as the image suggests.
The bargain (£3 million +) – Marvin Friedrich
At 24, Friedrich is the youngest of the highlighted centre-backs and arguably has the most upside. Whilst he isn’t at Tarkowski’s level yet, and with a Transfermarkt value of £1.8m that’s understandable, he does, however, have the potential to play at a higher level than with his current employers, Union Berlin. There, Friedrich is a regular alongside either Robin Knoche or Nico Schlotterbeck, or sometimes playing with both in a back three.
Union are a direct side, and as a result it’s not surprising to see that Friedrich and Tarkowski are similar in possession. Friedrich is equally direct, and whilst he is a slightly more proactive ball progressor, he doesn’t excel in this area. Freidrich is a league leader in the Bundesliga when it comes to his average pass length, long ball ratio and forward pass ratio.
Friedrich pales in comparison to Tarkowski when it comes to attacking and creativity, even if he is a more consistent goal throat which we can see from his xG per 90. Despite having similar or even more impressive passing statistics, we can see that Tarkowski’s passing is more effective, where he ranks higher for smart passes per 90, passes to the penalty area per 90, key passes per 90, and through passes per 90.
Union Berlin play in a way where they look to get the ball forward quickly into a target man and have the forward bring others into play with hold up play or knock downs. This means Friedrich is moving the ball forward frequently and playing a high number of forward passes, but there isn’t great variety to the type of pass, with Berlin more concerned about getting the ball into the opposition half with haste.
Defensively Friedrich once more pales when looked at next to Tarkowski, but there is enough here to suggest there is potential with Friedrich. Firstly, we can already see how strong he is in both defensive duels per 90 and defensive duels won %, which is impressive, whilst he ranks lower than Tarkowski for fouls per 90 too. Whilst he is involved in a high number of aerial duels per 90, his win percentage is disappointing. This is an area of his game he has struggled with throughout his career, and whilst he is still going to win above 50% of his aerial duels consistently, at this rate it’s unlikely to see him reach above 70% as Tarkowski did last season. As another aerially underperforming centre-back who stands at 1.9m tall, he has the frame to improve in this aspect of his game.
In the plethora of names being chucked around leading up to deadline day as centre-back options for West Ham, none of these three was mentioned. However, they all present interesting alternatives to Tarkowski. Hause would be a plug-in and play option who West Ham should have moved for without skipping a beat. With him only signing for Villa permanently last season it might not have been the easiest transfer to pull off, but having paid just £3.06 million for him, it’s likely the Villains would have been open to turning a quick, healthy-sized profit on him, particularly with Ezri Konsa ready to come in to permanently partner Tyrone Mings at the heart of the defence.
Stark would be more of a risk, and right now is an imperfect alternative, however, he delivers in possession as a viable alternative, whereas out of possession, he needs a move away from Hertha to rebuild his confidence in this part of his game, and with less than two years left on his contract, there’s a good chance Hertha would look to cash in should a reasonable offer come in for the big man.
Finally, Friedrich might not quite be ready to start but would present a strong third option for West Ham, jumping ahead of Balbuena, who has struggled for form for quite some time now. At 24, he has plenty of time to grow, and if he can drastically improve aerially, whilst grow in confidence in possession, there’s real potential in him. There are few teams as committed to the long ball as Union, and therefore, we can’t make a full judgement on his ball-playing ability (other than with his long-passing), due to this system. I think there’s enough promise here to suggest Friedrich could be a solid top-tier centre-back for years to come.