Finding a new defensive midfielder for Spurs – data analysis
Upon taking over Tottenham Hotspur in November last year, José Mourinho made positive strides with his new club. The team finished sixth in the Premier League compared to the 14th position at the start of Mourinho’s tenure, qualifying for Europa League football for the 2020/2021 season.
However, there were issues from the squad building perspective in the past two years which led to a big drop off in results at the start of this season. Despite better results since the appointment of a new coach, squad rehaul is needed if Tottenham want to catch up to the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool like the rest of the big teams.
One of the most problematic positions according to many is the defensive midfield position. Despite having some quality players in Winks, Lo Celso and Ndombele, Spurs need a player that will provide defensive stability and boost that midfield. So, in this data analysis, we are going to be looking at U24 midfielders with at least 900 minutes played this season in four leagues – Ligue 1, Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A. We will compare them across several offensive and defensive metrics, and then will take a couple of most fitting players for that position.
Jose Mourinho implemented a 4-2-3-1 formation right from the start and stuck with it until the end of the season. This, of course, wasn’t a rigid formation, transforming in a 3-4-3 or 3-4-1-2 in the attacking phase with right-back Aurier pushing upfield, and 4-4-2 in the defensive phase with one of the wingers dropping deep into midfield. Next season will be the first full season for Tottenham Hotspur under the direction of Mourinho and we will be able to see true signs of what the Portuguese is trying to build.
For the midfield spot that we are focusing on in this analysis, Mourinho likely wants a player of a more defensive profile to accompany either Winks or Ndombele in a double pivot. So, he needs a player who is disciplined playing without the ball and has good defensive attributes. Moreover, it’s important that a player for this position can keep the ball for his team under pressure and can progress the ball with his runs or passes.
For these reasons, we will evaluate midfielders in a couple of categories:
- Defensive contribution
Here we will use tackles+interceptions and pressures per 90 minutes to evaluate midfielders defensively.
- Aerial prowess
We will use the volume of aerial duels and how efficient they are in the air by looking at their win percentages. Even though it’s not the best way to evaluate aerial ability, it will be important to see how some players that we might shortlist are doing in terms of aerial duels.
- Keeping possession
In order to identify the best players in terms of winning the ball back and not giving it away, as well as carrying the ball in midfield, we will use two metrics – net possessions and carries per touch. The first one is calculated as ball wins – ball losses, so, the closer this number is to zero, the better the player is at keeping the ball. Carries per touch show how much a certain player drives with the ball forward in midfield, and by using these two statistics, we will be able to tell which players are the most efficient at recycling possession.
- Ball progression
Finally, here we will delve into the ball progression, and progressive passes+crosses and carries are a good way to identify midfielders that can get the ball upfield with their passing or dribbling.
We start off with Ligue 1 and some defensive statistics – tackles combined with interceptions on the x-axis and pressures on the y-axis (all per 90 minutes).
There are a couple of outliers in both categories, and the first one is Valentin Rongier, who made 5,63 tackles and interceptions plus recorded 30,9 pressures per 90 minutes.
Lucas Tousart from Olympique Lyonnais and Ibrahim Sangaré from Toulouse are also contributing to their teams a lot defensively. The Frenchman records 4,74 tackles/interceptions and 25,2 pressures, while the Ivorian records 5,08 tackles and interceptions and 23,3 pressures per 90 minutes.
Tiémoué Bakayoko continues his resurgence with good performances for AS Monaco and making a name for himself with 5,13 tackles and interceptions plus 21,7 pressures per 90 minutes.
Next up we evaluate midfielders in terms of their aerial prowess. Sidy Sarr is a clear outlier in terms of his volume in this category with 9,92 aerial duels per 90 minutes and 68,8% winning rate. You can see that other midfielders are close to each other and there is not much volatility.
Moving on from defensive metrics, here we evaluate keeping possession with net possessions and carries per touch. Here we have more attacking-minded players in, for example, Houssem Aouar or Aleksandr Golovin, and they are do not fit into the role.
The 21-year-old Boubakary Soumaré from Lille appears as well with -4,43 in net possessions and 0,76 carries per touch, being one of the outliers in both categories. Lucas Tousart and Tiémoué Bakayoko are slightly above average here with -5,25 in net possessions and 0,68 carries per touch, -5,85 in net possessions and 0,70 carries per touch respectively.
Next, we have progressive passing and carries, and here one of the leaders are Wylan Cyprien and Aleksandr Golovin, who are specialists in high risk – high reward passing, with over 11 progressive passes and crosses per 90 minutes, and it can be seen in their net possessions too. Valentin Rongier, Boubakary Soumaré and Tiémoué Bakayoko are one of the best in terms of carries per 90 minutes.
The next league is Bundesliga, and here we have a lot of great options for our search. First of all, in terms of defensive contributions, Konrad Laimer is undisputedly the best player from a data perspective with 5,79 tackles and interceptions and 35,4 pressures per 90 minutes.
Diadie Samassékou from 1899 Hoffenheim is up there too with significantly fewer pressures but with similar statistics in terms of tackles and interceptions.
Denis Zakaria has already attracted interest from such clubs as Chelsea and Manchester United this summer, and he can definitely provide some defensive cover, making 5,09 tackles and interceptions along with 17,3 pressures per 90 minutes.
Regarding aerial duels, Marko Grujić, the loanee from Liverpool at Hertha Berlin, is dominating the midfield with his stature and physical ability. Weston McKennie, who is linked with a move to Southampton, is also one of the best in the business.
Here, the three players that we saw do well in terms of their defending – Samassékou, Zakaria and Laimer – are also doing really well in terms of keeping the ball and driving forward with it. They are all around the same regarding net possessions, but in terms of carries per touch Zakaria is clearly the best out of the three, with 0,72 carries per touch, while Samassékou and Laimer have 0,60 and 0,67 respectively.
In terms of ball progression, the 22-year-old Lászlo Bénes is an outlier with his brilliant passing, and Julian Weigl together with Achraf Hakimi are the best in carries. Here, Samassékou is scoring low in both categories, while Laimer and Zakaria are around average across these sets of players.
Moving over to La Liga, Saúl Ñíguez is one of the best defensive midfielders in the league in terms of defensive output with 4,55 tackles+interceptions. Yangel Herrera from Granada, however, is the best U24 midfielder in this category with 4,41 tackles+interceptions and 28,3 pressures per 90 minutes.
In terms of aerial prowess, Mikel Merino records 7,2 aerial duels and 63,3% win rate and he is clearly the best in this category. Saúl Ñíguez and Yangel Herrera are also up there among the outliers in aerial duels.
Two of the main Barcelona talents this season, Frenkie de Jong and Arthur Melo, with the latter departing to Juventus, are at the very top of midfielders who drive with the ball the most often from midfield. Stanislav Lobotka, who joined Napoli from Celta Vigo in the winter transfer window, is one of the best in two categories, with -6,1 in net possessions and 0,76 carries per touch.
In terms of ball progression, De Jong and Melo take top places once again. Mikel Merino with 7,79 progressive passes and crosses plus 46,4 carries and Marc Roca with 8,81 progressive passes and crosses and 38,5 carries are among the best players here. Toni Villa, Enis Bardhi and Thomas Lemar progress the ball on a solid level too.
As for our last league, Serie A, I personally think there are more options than in the previous three, and a lot of midfield prospects can be found here.
Ismaël Bennacer, Amadou Diawara and Walace are the best in our defensive statistics, while Rolando Mandragora, Ronaldo Vieira and Espeto are pressing the most from midfield.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savić is one of the best in the volume of aerial duels together with Morten Thorsby, and Rodrigo Bentancur, Gianluca Mancini and Ronaldo Vieira also have high outputs in this area.
In the next two categories which focus on the on-ball skillsets, there are a lot of players that show great numbers. Regarding the difference in turnovers, Walace and Amadou Diawara have excellent numbers, losing the ball only 2,73 and 2,62 times more than they are winning it, respectively. In terms of ball progression through dribbling, Elif Elmas from Napoli is the best player with 0,84 carries per touch.
Sandro Tonali and Lorenzo Pellegrini are the most progressive passers from midfield in U24 category, while Fabián Ruiz, Manuel Locatelli and Ismaël Bennacer lead in terms of carries.
After looking at the data and then doing more research, I’ve come up with several names from each league that I think can fit right into Mourinho’s Tottenham. There are more players to consider from this set, and I just highlighted a couple of options.
Under the helm of André Villas-Boas, Valentin Rongier started shining in his midfield role. Olympique de Marseille are a high-pressing team, and it shows in Rongier’s statistics. He plays in a 4-3-3 formation in a midfield-three together with Sanson and Strootman in a deeper role, and in possession it transforms, allowing Rongier to drop deeper and then progress the ball. He works hard defensively too, as we’ve seen in the charts. It can be said that Rongier is suitable for the role of a defensive midfielder at Tottenham, playing in this role at Marseille and also having defensive ability to cover for a more attacking partner.
Lille managed to maintain their level of performances from 2018/19 season, almost finishing in a Champions League spot. Their policy of reinvesting in talent seems to bear fruit, and, together with Gabriel Magalhães and Victor Osimhen, Boubakary Soumaré is one of the main talents at their disposal.
Being a good dribbler of the ball, he can cut through defences himself, and he is a direct passer too, which allows him to progress the ball from that midfield spot. On the other hand, Soumaré is also a great tackler and has a good sense of defensive positioning which allows him to make interceptions. Along with his physicality and intelligence, he is a perfect all-round midfielder to impact both ends of the pitch.
The 23-year-old became an integral part of RB Leipzig this season, being the pressing machine and providing defensive stability, while Marcel Sabitzer or Emile Forsberg were more focused on the attack. It’s a good sign with Laimer being able to adapt to his partner in a pivot role.
Moreover, he is capable of working under pressure and he is doing his part in the attack too with runs into the final third which create havoc in the defensive structure of the opposition. This is a player that can cover a lot of ground, be defensively sound, and also provide ability on the ball. For me, he’s the perfect player for Tottenham to go after.
Zakaria possesses great physicality and speed which help him going both ways. Hence, he is able to cope with practically any player on the pitch even in open spaces when defending. Zakaria’s stature makes him a tough opponent in ground duels too, with the Swiss able to shield off the ball from opponents and having that aggressiveness that allows him to win it back consistently.
In attack, he plays more of a supporting role, dropping to form a back-three and providing options in the build-up by positioning himself deeper. However, his on-the-ball ability can’t be ignored, and he provides another dimension to the attacking game of his team, carrying the ball forward himself. His passing is largely predicated by his role, so Zakaria is not a progressive passer, preferring to play it safe.
The midfield trio of Mikel Merino, Igor Zubeldia and Martin Ödegaard worked wonders for Real Sociedad this season, helping the team to finish in Europa League. While the other two are more concerned about attack or defence, Merino connects those two together, playing as a box-to-box midfielder. He is great at winning the ball through pressing and aerial duels, making a lot of tackles and interceptions as well. Merino is important to his team in the build-up, dropping deep and into half-space to link up the play and progress the ball forward. Just like Zakaria, Merino uses his build to shield off opponents and keeping the ball, he is more progressive with his passing however, often finding teammates between the lines.
Marc Roca’s been one of the few bright signs of an otherwise disastrous season for Espanyol which ended in a last-place finish. With his current club relegated, the Spanish international is very likely to move places in this transfer window. His style of play in the defensive phase contains providing cover for his teammates, and his anticipation and positioning allow him to win the ball back. Roca doesn’t have a great deal of pace, so game intelligence helps him a lot in defensive duels.
Roca plays the role of a facilitator in the build-up, linking up play between the centre-backs and the rest of the team. He also has that last pass on him, being able to open up defences with through and long balls. His lack of pace is the main concern if he’s to move to the Premier League, because with him in the midfield it can cause defensive issues.
At the time of writing this article, Pierre-Emile Höjbjerg could be very close to signing with Tottenham Hotspur on a permanent deal from Southampton. So, the problem of lacking a true defensive midfielder could be solved with him and now Mourinho can turn his attention to strengthening other positions. However, despite that, I hope this data analysis gave you a broader look at U24 midfielders in the top leagues outside of Premier League. As you can see, there are a lot of talented midfielders that can find new clubs in this transfer window, so there is a lot of things to keep an eye on in the following couple of months.