If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.Paolo Maldini
Italians have been blessed with a rich history of art dating back centuries, from Da Vinci to the Colosseum. This artistic style has continuously expressed itself on the Italian football fields many centuries later. What can be found on the pitch is a unique mark in the style and elegance a defender can undertake his duties.
Fabio Cannavaro became the first defender in the modern era to lift the Ballon d’Or award in 2006. He captained Italy to the World Cup Final in Germany, where they left as World Champions. In seven games, they managed five clean sheets, only conceding two goals. Disciplined, intelligent and good positional awareness are just some of the attributes that describe Cannavaro’s performance in that competition. Will he be the last defender to win such a prestigious honor? Hopefully not, but let’s take a look at some of the best performing centre-backs this 2018/19 season.
To understand individuals you have to understand the team. So let’s go. Liverpool have conceded just 13 times in 23 League games this season. Average of 0.53 every 90 minutes. Juventus have the best defensive record in Europes top 5 leagues, with just 11 let in and a slightly lower average of 0.52. Unsurprisingly Atlético Madrid don’t let much in, the least in Spain, conceding 13 with an average of 0.58 per game. Germany seems to be either a high scoring league or bad defending one, maybe both, either way, Borussia M’gladbach top the defensive charts with 18 goals conceded. Combined with a high average of 0.9. If its entertainment you’re after, Germany seems the place to be. Despite this, however, the Premier League has the highest average goals conceded at 32.5. Making Liverpool the best defensive team in Europe when considering the number of goals being conceded by teams in that competition, Liverpool are well below their Leagues average.
When primarily looking at defensive stats, I have identified the colossal Virgil Van Dijk as the man to use as my focal point. He’s been the heartbeat of the Liverpool defence this season and is a key reason of the shy opportunities teams have been afforded at Anfield in the 2018/19 campaign. It’s important to highlight exactly what Van Dijk offers in a defensive sense.
Van Dijk has an average of 11.27 successful defensive actions per 90 mins. This is the highest in the Premier League as an average of the number of minutes played. This basically means, if all centre-backs in the Premier League played the same number of minutes, on average Van Dijk would have the highest successful tackles. Also, he’s won 38.96% of defensive duels, and a 63.23% of aerial duels won, indicating both his strong presence in the air and on the ground.
The centre-back based on Van Dijk’s defensive stats has to have a minimum of 11 successful defensive actions per 90, a minimum of 37% of defensive duels won and a minimum of 64% of aerial duels won. Based just on Europes top five leagues, only two other players match this criterion. What’s even more curious is that a teenager is in the list, standing at 6ft5, Dan-Axel Zagadou from Borussia Dortmund. The 19-year-old had higher statistics than Van Dijk in all three areas. However, he had played only 794 minutes in the league, much lower than Van Dijks 2260. Nevertheless, this is not to say that he couldn’t keep up these figures if he had played more. When he does play, he seems to be very effective based on those three variables. Unexpectedly, Joel Matip is the other player. A dark horse? Maybe. He’s only played 498 minutes and again isn’t close to the level of consistency Van Dijk has shown. But credit where its due.
It would be naive to just focus on these three characteristics. When relaxing some of these stats, let’s say dropping aerial duels won to 60%, another Premier League player pops up. Slab Head. Yes, that is, of course, Harry Maguire of Leicester City. Been a bit quiet and under the radar this season, however, his performances seem to have remained consistent.
Okay modern era of football, defenders need to play with the ball, all of that stuff. But who has actually been able to show it? Well, only five centre-backs in the Premier League have a passing accuracy of 90% or better. Yes, you guessed it, all four of Manchester City’s are here. With John Stones being the most accurate at 95.11%. (He actually holds the title of the most accurate passer in the League, regardless of position). Antonio Rudiger is the only other, at 92.54%, though he completes the least passes in a game from this list, 72.74.
We’ve looked at positive attributes you would want a centre-back to possess. But what should they not have? I focused on three areas for this, loose ball duels, average fouls and missed balls, all per 90 mins. The first face to come back staring at me was Shkodran Mustafi. The man is a mistake generating machine. He has cost Arsenal a number of points on numerous occasions and will continue to do so unless something drastic changes in his game. He has also played more minutes (1744) than the other two on this list combined, Juan Foyth (582) and Yerry Mina (758). I mean, at least he has consistency in his misjudgments right…
So yes, Stats do produce some peculiar results, but that’s what makes them interesting. However, we should remember that stats aren’t everything. For instance, stats do not pick up good positional awareness, a key skill as a centre-back. This would lead to lower defensive metrics as defenders avoid having to make a tackle for instance. Taking a quick look at the master, Giorgio Chiellini, he doesn’t hold majestic defensive stats this season, yet he has an impressive level of interceptions. A skill correlated towards correct positioning that comes with experience. So I’d like to remind you that data can miss out on strong performers at times. Now taking a step into the future. Ajax Centre-back, Matthijs De Ligt recently became the first defender to win the Golden Boy award since its inaugural in 2003. Will he follow in the footsteps of Fabio Cannavaro?