Bobby Faulkner: Why the young Donny defender is attracting Premier League interest – scout report
So far, the resurgence of Doncaster Rovers is yet to fully take off, with the club currently sitting just outside of the EFL League Two play-offs. Despite a mixed bag of performances and results so far this season, there are a few individuals who have turned heads for the right reasons. One of them is Bobby Faulkner, the 18-year-old centre-back who has been immensely impressive at the heart of Rovers’ backline.
Featuring 11 times thus far in the current campaign in all competitions, Faulkner is gaining some vital first-team minutes but has also been an important figure for Gary McSheffrey’s side in the opening parts of the season. His performances have not gone unnoticed either, with reports circulating that the young defender is attracting interest from Premier League and EFL Championship clubs. This scout report will provide a tactical analysis of Faulkner’s defensive ability, along with an analysis of his work in possession, while also touching on how he fits into Rovers’ tactics. We will also take a look at an area for improvement in his defensive game – his tendency to be pinned by a striker and being beaten in the duel.
Doncaster-born Bobby Faulkner has been highly rated by those at the club for some time since his arrival at the under-16 level and has enjoyed a spell at Frickley Athletic to bolster his development. Right-footed, Faulkner currently measures 6’1’ – considering his age, he could yet grow taller, ideal for the type of defender he is. Rovers’ faith in the youngster’s potential was outlined when he signed a two-year deal back in May 2022.
Possessing traits of what can be described as a somewhat old-fashioned centre-back, Faulkner’s presence lies mainly on the right side of a centre-half partnership. He has, however, had experience playing as a right-back and as a central midfielder. His heatmap below shows us which parts of the pitch he operates in and to what frequency.
As we touched upon earlier on in this report, Faulkner could be described as a classic/old-fashioned centre-half. This obviously touches on reference to different areas of his game, but in terms of defensive ability and style, he lives up to that label – reliable and brave in a strong tackle. This segment of analysis looks at his ability in a defensive duel – how he uses various attributes to put in important challenges.
This first example highlights some tactical attributes as well as his defensive technical ability. As we can see, the opposition has possession in a dangerous area, but an area that would still be considered to be in Rovers’ midfield territory. Despite this, Faulkner sensed the danger and left his post to come into midfield zones to apply pressure to the opponent before putting in a strong but fair tackle to break up the attack.
While rushing out like this can have its pros and cons, in this instance, it was a smart call from the youngster – and with left-back James Maxwell tucking inside, Faulkner’s press didn’t leave any gaps in the Donny back line.
Above is a visual representation of Faulkner’s defensive output. We can see that he operates across the right and left sides of the defence, with a high rate of involvement via interceptions and general defensive actions. This highlights his confidence and determination to help his team instead of shying away from responsibility.
The next example of his defensive work really highlights his bravery and his ability to put in vital, last-ditch tackles. While the first shot raises questions about his starting position and why he’s sprinting to get into position, he quickly rectifies this by darting into action and getting in the face of the opposition striker receiving the ball. Without hesitation, Faulkner lunges in with a well-controlled but strong challenge which was executed with good timing and technique. The challenge poked the ball into the path of teammate Ro-Shaun Williams who struggled to find the right pass out of danger.
Thus far in 2022/23, Faulkner has averaged 7.16 defensive duels per 90 mins, with a win rate of 73.4% – a stat that is fairly healthy for a young defender in his first season in senior football. Losing 2-3 defensive duels per 90 is not as detrimental as it may sound – remember that some of these duels will occur further up the pitch and in less dangerous areas.
The third analysis of Faulkner’s defensive ability shows us that he can operate in higher areas of the pitch in order to stop the opposition in their counterattack efforts. As the ball is played towards the opponent at the halfway line, the move is pushing possession out to the left flank, which was aided by the press of Faulkner. This is followed by a tussle in which Faulkner displays strength before putting in a statement tackle that kills the attack for that moment.
Winning the ball higher up is something Faulkner knows how to do, and is likely an element of his game that will become more frequent and dominate as the years go on. So far this season, the youngster has made 10 counter-pressing recoveries alongside three high regains.
In possession contributions
At just 18, of course, we are not seeing a version of Faulkner that is anywhere close to the finished product, and that is evident in his play on the ball. That isn’t to say he doesn’t have the ability or potential to be a ball-playing centre-half, but at the current moment, more than anything he seems to lack the confidence and experience to do so. Below is an analysis of how he operates on the ball.
This first analysis loops back to the mention of his lack of experience and confidence – either one of these could be the reason why Faulkner decided to attack the falling ball with a looping header to return the ball back into a clustered midfield zone.
With very little immediate pressure on him, he did have the time to bring the ball down via his chest, thigh, or foot, and get the ball on the ground. Alternative options would have been to cushion the ball back toward the goalkeeper or if it’s a clearance he’s looking for, then readjust his body shape and use his stronger right foot to do so.
Faulkner is capable on the ball, and has shown a good tactical understanding – often when he receives the ball, he is looking to play the next pass to the full-back on his side to try and progress the attack. But let’s back up a moment, as Faulkner shows good movement and positioning (seen in the first of the two images) to make himself available to receive the ball from his under-pressure teammate. From there, letting the ball run across his body allows him to play the desired pass out to the full-back.
With 28.17 passes per 90, we can see that Faulkner doesn’t have a major involvement from the back – his pass accuracy of 65.5% may point to a justification for that. If he can overcome that barrier of confidence on the ball over the next season or two, it will certainly add a whole new dimension to his game. Around half of his passes per 90 are forward passes (13.08) – most of them are into the full-back or into a supporting central midfielder. Long passing is not a major feature of his game either – 5.37 per 90 with an accuracy of 14.6% suggests that a lot of his long passes are hopeful efforts to relieve pressure on the backline.
Being pinned by the striker
There is an argument that Faulkner has been dropped in the deep end this season, but what better way to learn? He has displayed enough ability to warrant a place in and around the first team, but inevitably, there are gaps in his game. One of them is almost definitely linked to his lack of experience – we have seen him being pinned by an opposition striker on a few occasions.
Considering his age and his strength in other defensive areas, this weakness is not down to a lack of physical or technical ability, but a case of opponents using their game experience to hold Faulkner off. This segment will look at just that.
This analysis suggests that some teams/strikers target Faulkner for this reason. At the moment the ball starts travelling into the opposition forward, he looks to back up into Faulkner and hold him off, leaving the defender unable to nick the ball – he also can’t just back off and return to the backline as that gives the opponent the opportunity to gain full control of the ball and turn to face the Rovers goal.
Another piece of evidence that points towards teams using this as a tactical ploy is the fact that as the ball travels towards the man pinning Faulkner, a teammate makes a bursting run from midfield into space. The forward then simply flicks the ball around the corner past Faulkner for his teammate to collect on the move. Faulkner will only improve at this and being around experienced defenders at the club like Tom Anderson will be of great value.
Like many promising prospects, Faulkner is still a raw talent – exceptional in some areas, but a need for improvement in other areas. Credit must go to both the player and the club, though – Faulkner has embraced the challenge and in some ways, is playing above his age and is seemingly improving week by week. But props to Rovers as well for putting trust in an academy product instead of loaning him back out.
As mentioned in the intro, clubs from higher divisions are reportedly monitoring the local lad’s progress, which will test Rovers’ mettle in either fighting to keep him or getting a respectable fee for him if/when an offer does arrive.