There once was a time when full-backs were viewed as a peripheral position; often labelled as defenders who weren’t strong enough to play centrally, or as wingers who didn’t possess the flair required to play further forward. As football has evolved and tactics refined, wingers have turned to inside forwards and strikers have transformed into false nines. Full-backs have now, over time, become one of the most important and impactful positions on the pitch in modern football.
In this scout report, we provide a tactical analysis of Ben Chilwell, using statistics to analyse how he ranks amongst Europe’s elite. We provide an analysis of his key attributes and where he needs to improve to become one of the worlds best.
Chilwell is an athletic full-back with an inherent fitness that allows him to be effective in all four phases of play. Though not blessed with blistering pace like Jordi Alba or Alex Sandro, Chilwell is no slouch, which in the attacking phase, enables him to travel seamlessly into advanced positions without being exposed and exploited.
Chilwell’s natural left-foot allows him to operate comfortably in tight 3v2’s that develop in possessional cycles in the lateral spaces. His sharp touch matched by his tactical awareness in these situations often sees Chilwell create space with fast ‘one-two’ interchanges. That’s not to mention his ability to deliver penetrative passes or inviting deliveries. From the heat map below we can see that Chilwell spends nearly an equal amount of time in the opposition half as he does in his own.
In defensive transition and organised defending sequences, Chilwell possesses good positional awareness and executes consistent timing in the tackle to make him effective in 1v1’s with tricky wingers. The below example is a perfect example of Chilwell’s defensive capabilities.
Leicester have just lost the ball high up the field and are now in defensive transition. Chilwell, in his naturally advanced position, is now out of position defensively. The gap between him and Çağlar Söyüncü is too large and Danny Ings is the wrong side of him, meaning there is plenty of space for the attacker to travel into.
There are three things Chilwell does brilliantly in this instance to nullify the threat. Firstly his recovery pace is explosive enough to catch up with his man, which forces Ings into a 1v1 scenario. Secondly, Chilwell doesn’t just directly engage Ings in a duel, he also has the presence of mind and tactical awareness to understand the angle by which to most effectively engage the duel. This small consideration has major implications as it means he is also acting as a cover shadow for the only pass available to Ings in the counter-attack.
In doing so, Chilwell has partially nullified the threat, which provides his team with one of the fundamentals of defending: Delay. This delay allows Leicester’s central midfielders additional time to recover their position and support defensively, as we can see above.
The third impressive element to this passage of play is Chilwell’s body positioning. Not only has he positioned his body to act as a cover shadow, but he has also avoided engaging Ings square-on, which would make him easy to by-pass. Instead, Chilwell adopts a dynamic side-on angle which blocks any route into the central zones – towards danger. This forces Ings wider and into safer areas of the pitch – away from offensive support. It goes without saying that Leicester recover possession as the counter-attack is suffocated entirely by Chilwell’s defensive understanding.
Looking at his defending statistics, we can see above how highly Chilwell ranks amongst his peers. The data has been taken from the 2019/20 domestic games only. The Englishman wins 58.50% of his aerial duels and 63.40% of his defensive duels. In the air, Chilwell is displaying more resilience than the like of Alex Sandro and Andrew Robertson, who over the past few seasons have become renowned as the standard for left-backs. Being good in the air naturally has some correlation to defensive ground duel success rate. This is logical as the taller and bulkier a player is, usually, the slower they are, and vice-versa. Marcelo is a prime example of how body composition affects the statistics as his aerial success rate is a low 33.30% due to his height, conversely, his ground duel success rate is 82.60%. This makes Marcelo deadly in one area but exploitable in others (aerially).
Chilwell is much more well-rounded. Despite being just 1.78m (5’8″) he is winning the majority of his duels in the air, which means the opposition can’t target him to build attacks off using long balls. This in concomitance with his ability to win ground duels, which we looked at earlier, makes Chilwell a defensive asset with no obvious weak links to exploit.
Since his introduction to the Leicester first-team in 2016/17 – the year after that famous title-winning season – Chilwell has cemented his place as first-choice left-back, and the numbers support his inclusion.
2019/20 has already been a season of progress for the England international. Chilwell’s key-passes per 90 (KP90) is continuing on its upward trend, where he is now averaging 1.3 per 90 minutes. This explains why the youngster has already registered three assists and achieves an Expected Assists per 90 of 0.15.
Whether it’s from a set-piece or incisive pass, we can see that it’s not just the final pass where Chilwell is improving, he is also becoming a goal-threat. With the arrival of Brendan Rogers, who has encouraged an attacking, fluid style of play, Chilwell has excelled in his freedom to be aggressive going forward. The Milton Keynes-born defender now averages 0.7 shots per 90 minutes (Sh90), an increase of 0.41 per game from two seasons ago. This has led to him scoring a goal, which is likely to increase based on these figures.
As we can see, the Englishman adopts a short passing game with penetrative passes attempted from the final third. This explains his success rate as Chilwell has developed the understanding of when to attempt the incisive pass and the positions from where they are most effective.
This is supported by the passing map above which shows that when in deeper positions, Chilwell is safe with possession, not attempting long risky passes that are low percentage but choosing short passing to develop attacks up the pitch for his side. As a result, there are few inaccurate passes (grey) – particularly in the defensive third – and a handful of key passes (pink) which all come from the final third.
In possession, Chilwell is at ease, which is demonstrated by his passing success this season of 82.3%. From the passing map above we can see Chilwell’s frequency of involvement in Leicesters’ possession. The full-back’s choice of pass is considered but not unimaginative, adventurous but not wasteful. He naturally adopts a wide position and doesn’t drift infield, which helps his team stretch the opposition defensive structure.
This wide positioning keeps a passing lane from his centre-back open at all times, as we can see from the strong link above between himself and Söyüncü (4). In this game the pair linked 39 times, demonstrating Chilwell’s importance for Leicester developing possession up the field.
Once in possession in advanced positions, Chilwell is positive minded, looking to progress the attack further upfield when the opportunity presents itself. This is usually done by linking with midfielders occupying central positions, who Chilwell often uses for a wall-passes which channel the ball into the vacant spaces in behind.
That midfielder usually comes in the form of James Maddison, who Chilwell linked with 53 times in this match example. This movement in the early phases of possession has seen Chilwell’s xGBuildup90 – which is the total xG of every possession the player is involved in without key passes or shots – increase to 0.42 this season. This is more than any other player in the Leicester squad who has played over 200 minutes of League football.
Looking at the comparison graph, we can see the Chilwell is posting strong statistics, however, there is still room for improvement. Looking at other players from the same division, Chilwell is still behind Lucas Digne, Ashley Young and Andrew Roberston when it comes to his xA90. If we drill into the statistics further we can see where the improvement in Chilwell’s game can be made. His delivery success percentage is down at 30.8% compared to that of Young and Roberston who achieve 41.2% and 38.4% respectively.
This can be partially explained by the team’s tactics, as Liverpool focus many attacks around deliveries from their full-backs – Robertson attempts 5.66 crosses per game, whereas Leicester play a shorter more fluid passing game using quick interchanges to play through the lines and therefore Chilwell attempts just 3.63. That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement to increase the Englishman’s success rate so he can continue his challenge to become Europe’s best left-back.
With his numbers continuing to improve, Ben Chilwell is beginning to turn heads amongst the European giants. His ability to deliver a cross from open play and dead-ball situations tied in with his reliability in possession and defensively make him an easy choice for managers. The arrival of Rogers and the injuries to Luke Shaw have allowed Chilwell to flourish domestically as well as on the international stage and at just 22 years of age, there is still plenty to conquer for this impressive full-back who since his Huddersfield days, is now rubbing shoulders with the very best.
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