Finding new full-backs for Guardiola, Klopp & Co. – data analysis
In the TFA May Magazine, I wrote a data analysis in which I used statistics to identify how the best teams of Europe and their coaches use their full-backs in different ways. The six teams were domestic champions of Europe’s top five leagues of the season 2018/19 (Manchester City, Juventus, PSG, Barcelona and Bayern Munich) and additionally the winners of the UEFA Champions League, Liverpool.
I used data of all full-backs in Europe’s top five leagues who have played at least 1,015 minutes in the current season. As we wanted to find out if the different roles of full-backs could be seen in their statistics, we only used the data of wide-defenders who play in a team which mainly use a formation with a back four.
This data analysis is now an addition to this magazine article as we use data to find players who could fit into these six top clubs. At first, I will explain the process and filters to then use statistics to find for the six teams new full-backs depending on their requirements.
Basically, it is not necessary to read the first article since I will summarise every team very shortly what we found out and what this means for this data analysis. The pool of players which is used in this data analysis consists out of all full-backs or wing-backs in Europe’s top five leagues, other interesting European leagues (Liga Nos, Belgian Pro League and Eredivisie) and additionally the five most interesting leagues from South and North America (Brazil’s Série A, Argentina’s Superliga, MLS, Mexico’s Liga MX) who have played at least 1,200 minutes and are 29-years-old or younger. Logically, I included all full-backs of the six clubs even though they played fewer minutes or are older than 29 to compare their values with the other ones.
My basic idea behind that is that these are the most competitive leagues in the world and when a player proves himself there, he is likely ready to play in one of Europe’s top five leagues. Also, the top clubs for which we look for new full-backs rarely sign players who are 30-years-old or even older and therefore I used the additional filter for the age. Now, we will discuss which role their full-backs have and what the requirements are to then search for potential new candidates. Also, I want to note that logically the stats slightly changed compared to the magazine piece since the Bundesliga restarted. Therefore, the statistics of the players in this competition are different, but we have for all players their stats in the domestic leagues for the season 2019/20 (and for the Série A and MLS 2019). All statistics in this data analysis are average values per 90 minutes.
Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are both among the very best players in their respective positions and extremely important for the tactics of Liverpool. While Alexander-Arnold interprets his role as wide-defender in a way like we haven’t seen it before what also can be seen in his stats (0.35 xA per 90, 22.62 forward passes per 90 or 16.13 progressive passes per 90), Robertson is the more direct player who runs for 90 minutes up and down the left-wing.
Considering this, we do not look for players who should replace these two at Liverpool as I don’t expect that them to leave the club, but Liverpool should consider looking for back-ups as the only have James Milner and Nathaniel Clyne as other wide-defenders (we don’t include now the ones from the second team).
Liverpool’s style of play is quite straight-forward and this gets especially visible in the two statistics progressive runs and progressive passes. Alexander-Arnold is amazing in the passing category while Robertson has for the runs great values. We have now these two values in the graph below and additionally the xA as the factor for the size of the dots as Liverpool’s full-backs need to be incredibly active in the final third.
Alexander-Arnold stands out in this graph due to his incredible 16.13 progressive passes per 90 while Robertson is among the players with the most progressive runs per 90 (3.03). Mário Rui of Napoli also stands out in this graph with 15 progressive passes, 3.26 progressive runs and an xA-value of 0.15. The main reason why he couldn’t be a real target for Liverpool is that he is already 28-years-old, but still, he could be an interesting back-up for Robertson on the left side, but you have to consider that Rui is not that explosive. Juan Cuadrado also has decent values, but he is in truth a winger and played this season only as right-back due to injuries in Juventus’ squad.
Sergio Reguilón, Achraf Hakimi, Kenny Lala, and Filip Kostić have decent values in all three categories. However, Hakimi will try to get a place in the first team of Real Madrid in the next season while Kostić is a winger or wing-back, but surely no full-back. Therefore, Reguilón could be interesting for the left side while Lala might be an option for the right side. But, you have to consider that Reguilón is quite young (23-years-old) and Lala a star in his team. Due to that, they won’t move to Liverpool just to be the back-ups for Robertson and Alexander-Arnold. Anyways, Reguilón and Lala are indeed interesting options for Liverpool.
Next, we will look for new full-backs for Manchester City. While they have on the right side with Kyle Walker and João Cancelo two top-class full-backs, they have on the left side often problems due to the injuries of Benjamin Mendy and Oleksandr Zinchenko. Therefore, we will look now only for left-backs and filter all right-backs out.
The first thing which comes logically to our mind when we think about Manchester City is their possession-orientated and dominant style of play. Due to that, we will now look at first at the number of passes and the number of forward passes of the left-backs and left wing-backs. Also, the size of the dot depends on the number of long passes. Since Pep Guardiola’s side mainly use short passes for the progression of the ball, also the left-back shouldn’t look to permanently opt for long balls.
Without any surprise, we especially see the left-backs of Man City, Barcelona, Bayern, BVB and Bayer Leverkusen among the players with the most forward passes and passes. Especially Wendell, Juan Bernat, and Raphaël Guerreiro could be interesting for Guardiola since all three of them are extremely confident on the ball.
Additionally, we will now look at the left-backs’ values for deep completions and progressive actions (progressive passes + progressive runs). Since Man City mainly dominate their games and force the opposition to sit back deep, the full-backs need to be able to act confidently in the final third and we measure this with the deep completions. On the other side, Guardiola uses his full-backs in different roles (inverted, in deep areas, in the wide areas to stretch the opposition), but they are always important for the progression of the ball.
This time, we find several players with decent values. For example, Nicolás Tagliafico of Ajax who will leave his current club in the summer has great values for deep completions (1,61) while Álex Grimaldo of Benfica has decent values in both categories.
Considering that players like Jordi Alba or Alex Sandro won’t leave their current club to join Manchester City, Guerreiro, Bernat, Wendell, Tagliafico, and Grimaldo are possible options for Man City.
Now, we will look at the Italian Champions who have with Sandro one of the best left-backs in the world, but on the right side they have a huge lack of quality and additionally Danilo and Mattia De Sciglio had to fight in this season with injuries. Due to that, Cuadrado often played as a right-back. In the light of this, they would need a back-up for Sandro and probably a top-class right-back. We will consider that when we look at the statistics and graphs.
We saw in the magazine piece that even though Juventus are of these six top teams who have the lowest number for passes per 90, their full-backs still play quite a lot passes. The reason for that is that the full-backs are extremely important for the progression of the ball in Maurizio Sarri’s system at Juventus. Therefore, we will look at first at the passes and progressive actions (progressive runs + progressive passes).
At this stage, we already know which players we can expect. However, since we know that Juventus primarily try to sign players from the Serie A, I also highlighted two interesting players from this league (besides Rui): Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Stefano Sabelli. Especially Di Lorenzo could be a real target for Juventus as he is among the best right-backs of the Serie A and is a regular starter for Napoli.
Next, we also look at the number of crosses and success rate since with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuaín they have two forwards who are strong in the air, but they rarely use crosses as we can see below. Additionally, the size of the dots tells us once more the xA-value per 90 of the player.
We can see that none of the Juventus players is above-average when it comes to crossing. Di Lorenzo has similar values while the left wing-back Cristiano Biraghi of Inter has decent values. Overall, Di Lorenzo could be an interesting man for the right-back position since Juve often signs the best players of the Serie A and this man could be an interesting target. Since Sandro is the clear number one on the left side, they will likely look for a young and promising left-back who will be on the Brazilian’s level in a few years as it would make no sense to now buy a top-class left-back who then rarely plays.
The French champions are indeed the team in this list who have the greatest problems when it comes to their wide-defenders. The right-back Thomas Meunier will leave the club this summer while on the other side Bernat is a high-level player, but doesn’t always show his full potential since he left Bayern Munich and Layvin Kurzawa is not good enough for PSG’s ambitions. Colin Dagba is on the right side the huge hope of the club as the 21-years-old already showed decent performances.
Therefore, it looks like they could use on both sides players as there are decent players, but probably not good enough to accomplish the great goals of Paris. The problem is here that Bernat and Meunier who mainly start for PSG have in almost all categories for progressive actions and passes low values since they play no central role in the progression of the ball for PSG. It is hard to say if one reason for that is that they are not on the same level as their teammates.
Since we can’t answer that question, we will now focus on the three metrics in which they stood out in the mag piece: deep completions, touches in the box and xA. The fact that they are above average in all these categories, but have low values for passes and the progression of the ball, tells us that they are quite important in the final third, but not that much to even get there. In the graph below, we have the deep completions and touches in the box. Again, the size of the dots depends on the xA per 90 minutes.
Krépin Diatta stands, in this case, out what is logical as he mainly plays as a winger for Club Brugge. Gelson Martins also has good values but plays mainly further up the pitch for Monaco too. Denzel Dumfries and Owen Wijndal are two interesting players from the Eredivisie. Especially Wijndal could be a target for PSG in the future as he already shows great performances even though he is just 20 years old. The already earlier mentioned Tagliafico could also be a man for Paris.
However, it has been reported that PSG decided to sign Alex Telles and that the deal is almost done. Therefore, I highlighted him. But, I need to mention here that deep completions and touches in the box heavily depend on the way how a coach uses his full-backs and due to that low numbers in this category don’t mean that, for example, Telles is a bad player. According to the above-used stats, Dumfries would fit into the tactics of Tuchel, but again the question occurs if the Dutch right-back is good enough for PSG’s ambitions and if the 21-years-old Dagba is the better option.
Barcelona are in a completely opposite situation compared to PSG. They have in Alba one of the best left-backs, but he is getting older and won’t be able to play on the highest level for many more years. Júnior Firpo is a talented guy for the left side of the back four but will need more time to settle in. On the right side, they have with Sergi Roberto and Nélson Semedo two wide-defenders who are without any question decent players but compare to the other players of Barcelona, not on the same level. Therefore, they have on both positions quality, but still, it is possible that they try to sing a new player within the next years.
In the first graph, we take the passes to the penalty area as well as the passes to the final third as these two metrics are important for players of Barcelona. Besides, the size of the dots depends on the number of progressive actions.
We have now again the players who already stood out in the prior graphs: Alexander-Arnold and Rui. Cancelo has the third-highest value for passes to the final third behind his teammate Zinchenko and Alexander-Arnold and is one of the most realistic targets for Barcelona. Mërgim Vojvoda and Rick Karsdorp have both decent values, but as they are both already 25 years old and still play in the Eredivisie and Jupiler Pro league respectively, I can’t imagine that they are real targets for Barca. Marcos Acuña is one of the most offensive-minded full-backs in Europe, but the left-back is already 28-years-old and would be around 30-years-old when he would replace Alba.
To now get a better feeling for the passing abilities and the decision-making, we will look at their success rate for their forward passes and additionally look at their forward pass share what is the percentage how many of the player’s passes are forward passes.
Cancelo is once again among the players with decent values while he has almost the same values as Sergiño Dest who is a 19-year-old right-back of Ajax. It has been rumoured that these two men are on Barcelona’s transfer list and according to these stats with good reason.
The last team of our list is Bayern Munich who have Alphonso Davies, who is one of the greatest talents in the full-back position. They signed the young Canadian as a winger, but due to injuries Hansi Flick had to use him at left-back and performs well in this position. Furthermore, they have in David Alaba and Lucas Hernández two players who can play at left-back and centre-back. On the other side, they have with Benjamin Pavard a wide-defender who was at the start of his career a centre-back and needs some more time to be fully confident when he goes forward from right-back. However, he is defensively extremely strong. Álvaro Odriozola will return to Real Madrid at the end of the season as he was with Bayern just on loan.
Considering this, we will look now only at the right-backs since Bayern indeed don’t need a left wide-defender. At first, we will look again at the forward passing share (how many passes are forward passes) and additionally the progressive actions since Bayern’s full-backs are quite important to their team’s attacks and build-up respectively.
The Japanese right-back of Bologna, Takehiro Tomiyasu, is only 21-years-old but is already a regular starter for his club and is linked with Leverkusen and Roma. Ricardo Pereira is Leicester City’s right-back and one of the best wide-defenders in the Premier League. He has for almost all the statistics above-average values but is never among the very best. Due to that, he never really stood out until now in this data analysis, but this time he has about similar values as Pavard. This brings me to a point which should always be considered in such a data analysis: players like Pavard or Pereira play in two of the best leagues of the world and therefore have better opponents and the speed and level of the game is higher which is what logically also influences their stats.
In the second graph, we will look again at the touches in the box and the deep completions since Bayern’s full-backs are also in the final third quite important for their team.
Once more Dumfries and Dest are among the players who stand out in both categories. These two Dutchmen could be quite realistic targets for the German champions since both are quite offensive-minded and therefore could give them another option on the right side compared to Pavard. Logically, Dest is the greater signing as he is 19-years-old and therefore five years younger than Dumfries.
At the end of this data analysis, I would want to note two important things: firstly, in this analysis, we just got a quick overview and focused much on the player types which don’t always tell us if a player is good enough for one of these six big clubs. Secondly, we only talked about offensive metrics since these clubs are among the dominant teams in their country and besides the offensive stats tell us more about the different types of players.
Of course, there are some similarities between these clubs and their tactics aren’t completely different. Due to that, several players would fit into more than one club and of course that stats are also heavily influenced by their current teams’ tactics. However, we got a basic overview of which players could be possible targets of these six big European clubs.