Finding the best centre-backs in Bundesliga – data analysis
Within the last couple of years, the Bundesliga has become a hub for underrated and promising talent that have either developed in the league or have been sold to bigger clubs across Europe. Most people just remember the sales of attackers such as Luka Jović and Sebastien Haller who were bought for very little money by Eintracht Frankfurt before making big money moves.
Yet, there have been notable centre-back acquisitions from top clubs in Europe. Both Thilo Kehrer and Abdou Diallo joined Paris Saint-Germain for big money from Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund respectively. In addition to that, Caglar Söyüncü, one of the Premier League breakout defenders, joined Leicester City from SC Freiburg.
In this data analysis, we will look at several central defenders from Bundesliga that are noteworthy and should be further scouted. Players that are included in this analysis have played at least 900 minutes in the league as it provides a big enough sample size for the players’ data.
We will start this analysis with defensive duels per 90 and how successful players are in defensive duels.
In the graph above players who stand out are the ones who won 75% of their defensive duels.
World cup winner Mats Hummels, who has had a renaissance with Dortmund this season, has a 75.52% defensive duel win percentage whilst contesting 6.46 duels per 90. The German has played nearly 2000 minutes this season and has helped Lucien Favre’s side become very stable at the back, all at the age of 31.
21-year-old RB Leipzig defender Dayot Upamecano has the most defensive duels per 90 (7.68) out of those who won at least 75% defensive duels. He won 79.04% of his defensive duels and has thus become one of the most sought-after young defenders in the world with the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Bayern Munich vying for his signature.
Former Manchester City centre back Matija Nastasić has the highest percentage of duels won with 82.56%. Currently playing for 6th placed Schalke, he contests 6.75 duels per 90 but has only played 13 matches as he has missed time due to injury.
Karim Rekik, who also played for the Citizens, joins Nastasić as the only players to have won more than 80% of their duels, winning 80.52%. The Hertha BSC defender does have the lowest defensive duels per 90 at 5.2 out of those who won at least 75% defensive duels. His recent form has helped him get starts for the Dutch national team.
Felix Uduokhai plays for Augsburg but is on loan from Wolfsburg. The 22-year-old has 5.31 defensive duels per 90 with a success rate of 76.83%. He is an extremely tall defender, standing at 1.92m, that can also play left-back. He has featured in 18 Bundesliga games this season, just one shy of his personal best for appearances in a season.
Two interesting players that missed the cut are Robin Knoche and Robin Koch. Both are German defenders with the former winning 73.55% of his duels whilst contesting 6.57 duels per match and the latter winning 72.88% whilst only competing for 4.78 duels per 90. Knoche, playing for Wolfsburg, is a more experienced defender but Koch, from Freiburg, already has two caps for the German national team with Knoche remaining uncapped.
Defenders need to have a presence in the air, but it is not a crucial attribute to have.
In this scatter graph we can see how many aerial duels central defenders have per 90 minutes and their success rate. The best defenders in the category are the ones in the top right-hand side as that indicates that they win most of their aerial battles consistently in a single game.
There are a few players above the 70% mark for aerial duels won, which include Dan-Axel Zagadou, Ozan Kabak, Dedryck Boyata and Jerome Boateng. The first two are young and very promising talents who have won 73.47% of their 4.39 aerial duels per game and 71.43% of their 5.43 aerial duels per game respectively. Boateng is the only player outside the top right side as he only contests 2.74 aerials duels per game with a success rate of 71.43%. This could be put down to the style of play Bayern Munich play as since they dominate so much possession, the defenders do less defensive work.
Neven Subotić plays for Union Berlin and is the only player to win over 80% of his aerial duels which is highly impressive. The 31-year-old is slightly below average in terms of contesting aerial duels per game with 3.83 but wins 80.26% of those duels.
The likes of Hummels and Uduokhai are on the higher end of aerial duels per game with 5.46 and 5.7 respectively. They both also have a decent win percentage with the Borussia Dortmund man winning 62.81% but the youngster wins more with 68.18%.
Once again, Koch falls short of beating the average aerial duel win percentage as he only wins 56.64%. However, he does have the second-most aerial duels per game with 5.79 – a tally only beaten by Paderborn’s Christian Strohdiek (6.22).
Both Rekik and Nastasić are below average aerially. Rekik wins 55.1% of his 3.31 aerial duels per game and Nastasić only wins 52% of his 3.92 duels per game.
Blocked shots and interceptions
These two statistics are connected to positioning and the intelligence of a player. Centre-backs need to have the ability to anticipate opponents’ intentions and be able to execute a defensive action. This graph shows interceptions and shots blocked per 90 minutes.
Once again, Boyata and Kabak lead this category in terms of shots blocker per game. Boyata blocks 1.02 shots per game whilst having 7.51 interceptions per game, the fourth-most in the league. Kabak has slightly less than a shot block per game with 0.99 and has 6.35 interceptions per game.
23-year-old Keven Schlotterbeck leads the league in interceptions per game with 8.74 and contributes to 0.9 blocks per game. The Freiburg defender also had promising aerial duel statistics. The German centre-back is making a high number of interceptions, demonstrating that he can analyse the game well, which is rare for young centre-backs.
Two players that were analysed previously, Nastasić and Uduokhai, have also been impressive in this category. The Serbian defender has 6.51 interceptions per game whilst blocking 0.86 shots per game. Meanwhile, Uduokhai has similar numbers with 6.41 interceptions and 0.84 shots blocked per 90.
Upamecano is slightly above average in both statistics. The French defender has 6.07 interceptions per game and blocks 0.6 shots per game. These numbers are great for a young defender who plays for a top side in Leipzig.
Robin Knoche has 6.63 interceptions and 0.65 shots blocked per game.
A special mention has to go to Sebastian Schonlau, who is the only other centre-back to have over eight interceptions per game with a tally of 8.16. The 25-year-old Paderborn defender also has 0.6 shots blocked per game, which is higher than the league average.
With the modern style of play evolving, clubs are now looking for central defenders who can pass and progress the play. The graph below will show us exactly that as it will show the averages for progressive passes per 90 and passes into the final third per 90.
Bayern Munich pair David Alaba and Jerome Boateng are runaway leaders in this category. The Austrian who has deputised at centre-back this season and has 14.82 progressive passes and 14.67 passes into the final third per game. Meanwhile, Boateng has the most progressive passes for a centre-back with 15.52 and has 10.74 passes into the final third per game.
Upamecano is the only other defender that has more than 10 passes into the final third per game with 10.77. He is also one of four with more than 13 progressive passes per game with 13.02.
Matthias Ginter has a slightly bigger tally of progressive passes per game than Upamecano with 13.12 and also has 8.52 passes into the final third per game. His international teammate Jonathan Tah also excels in this category with 8.6 passes into the final third and 12.9 progressive passes per game. As you can see, there is a trend here as these players play for the top sides who generally have more possession and rely on their defenders much more in the build-up phase than teams that are in the bottom half.
This can be seen when looking at the statistics of the players that were analysed earlier. Uduokhai has 5.7 progressive passes and 2.79 passes into the final third per game. Rekik and Nastasić are closer together in this category as they have just over 7 progressive passes and between 4.5 and 6.5 passes into the final third per game. Knoche is above average in this category, with 7.28 passes into the final third and 11.3 progressive passes per game.
Putting all the information together about the players’ abilities highlights several players who were mentioned in almost every category. It is unrealistic to expect a player to be good in every category, given the range of abilities we are looking for and the differing styles of play that teams play in. We have decided to exclude players from the top four given that most of those players are already either accomplished defenders or highly touted youngsters. This can then give way to players who are under the radar and perhaps underappreciated.
Apart from Kabak and Schlotterbeck, all the players are winning over 70% of their defensive duels, but Kabak is at the top of aerial duels won. Uduokhai is the only other player who has over 60% aerial duels won.
Schlotterbeck leads in interceptions per 90 and is second in shots blocked per game with Kabak topping that chart. Nastasić, Knoche and Uduokhai are all in the top five for those statistics.
In terms of ball progression, Knoche leads the way by a long margin as Kabak and Schonlau both show they are reliable in the build-up with more than 8.5 progressive passes per game.
The final four
While each player who was mentioned just before has his strengths and can certainly be looked as potential bargain, there are a few players that have caught the eye. It should be noted that no player in this is a perfect defender as each centre-back has an area in their game that could be improved on. So, the players that should be further scouted are:
Ozan Kabak – The Schalke defender is probably the most recognisable player in the list and has been a crucial part of David Wagner’s side, playing 19 goals and contributing to four goals. The 20-year-old is already capped by Turkey and the numbers showcase his ability in the air and his great reading of the game and ball-playing quality. From this list, he is most likely to move to a big club as his youthfulness means that there is still a lot more left to see. Detailed scouting would show how he would need to improve his game to become a great defender that a top club can sign.
Robin Knoche – The German defender has been with Wolfsburg his whole career and the statistics have shown that he is good in all categories. He is very high in progressive passing and good at intercepting the ball. There are improvements to be made for the 27-year-old, most notably in the aerial department. He can be a great option for a Premier League midtable team as he even has European pedigree, playing in the Europa League. However, during the Bundesliga season, he was benched seven times which is a worrying sign and detailed scouting can see why he is not a permanent starter for Wolfsburg.
Sebastian Schonlau –The 25-year-old has shown he is great at winning duels and intercepting the ball. He even has great passing numbers for Paderborn who are bottom of the league and good aerial ability. The only criticism is that he does lack in the shot-blocking department. With Paderborn most likely going down, Schonlau could be a great pick-up for a Bundesliga team. Detailed scouting will show whether the team struggles to block shots or if it’s an individual quality as well as whether he is as good as the numbers suggest.
Felix Uduokhai – This pick is more of a wildcard. The young defender on loan has great numbers all around apart from one category. He was in the top five in every statistic except progressive passing, which could allude to how Augsburg play, given that they have the least possession in the league on average. Detailed scouting can show whether he is ready to make the step-up into Wolfsburg’s first team and potentially partner Knoche next season.
While there are plenty of talented centre-backs that most football fans know about, the Bundesliga do have several players that, when you scratch the surface, could potentially be bargain signings and great players in the future.