EURO 2020 SERIES: The Statistical Breakdown of Central Defenders

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VOLUME 1: What have I gotten myself into?

It is time to present our first volume in the series that you loved so much on Instagram. Jokes aside, the articles we have been preparing present real analytical difficulties and so it is difficult to make meaningful comparisons. Sometimes raw data can confuse us, it can be convoluted and hard to untangle and won’t always present the reality, but a reality.

For example, most of you would name Chiellini, Maguire, Kjaer etc. as some of the best central defenders of EURO 2020. Is that the case for raw data though? Well, there are a good number of players that have much better numbers, statistically speaking. If you are not willing to put the extra work in a proper analysis of your findings, you might believe that Velkovski is better than Varane.

Before moving forward let me give you a brief overview of the article. First of all, I will explain in the least words possible why some players did better than others, why we get these numbers, and why they don’t always confirm our beliefs. Second, we will present different central defenders and their performance, having analysed their performance over nine different categories. Finally, I will cover some youngsters and a player that could change teams this summer.

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The way we present and read data

To avoid unfair comparisons, we are not considering total sums since the players haven’t played for the same amount of minutes. To avoid this problem, we have calibrated the statistics per 90 minutes, which is a fair way to enable comparisons. Furthermore, we cannot take into consideration very small statistical samples. Therefore, we will only take into consideration players that have played at least 180 minutes in one position. This way we can include players from teams that were disqualified in the Group Stage even if they did not play three full games.

CategoryDescription
AerAerial Duels Won
BlBlocks — Number of times blocking the ball by standing in its path
ClrClearances
DTpPercentage of dribblers tackled
FlsFouls Committed
IntInterceptions
PCPasses Completed
PCpPasses Completion Percentage
TklNumber of players tackled
Stat Categories from fbref.com

Now, let’s look at some of the numbers and try to understand why we get them, starting with an example. Marcus Danielsson was first in clearances by far. The reasons behind this, outside of his talent of course, are that Sweden defended deep in some games. Also they played a game against Spain were they had less than 20% of possession. Defenders that figure in defensive teams will amount stats, nobody can deny that. Also, when a team is defending deep and does not hold the ball, the defenders will most likely clear the ball rather than find a teammate with a short or long ball. It is important to note as well that if the opposition team plays with long balls and a target man, like Russia, the defenders will clear a lot of balls by deflecting/heading them out or to an opposition. One interesting way of looking at clearances to draw conclusions is to take them into consideration in tandem with the passing percentage. Therefore, a big amount of clearances is not always positive, not necessarily harmful, and for some teams, coaches and players they are of massive importance.

Similarly, we can say for tackles, interceptions etc. that a team that operates defensively at the highest level will not require its defenders to put a big amount of these stats. For example, when you pressure your opponents correctly, they will lose the ball, make mistakes, and wrong decisions. Therefore, the defender won’t be needed to tackle, block or intercept as much, since the ball and opposition will not reach them as many times. Moreover, a defender with the talents and experience of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci will have the right positioning more times than not, which allows them to tackle less, since they are already at a better place to claim the ball or challenge their opponent and force them to make a mistake. On the other hand, they are extremely important in many defensive plays and require physicality, talent, and good technique.

In my opinion the best defensive play (situation) is the one you never had to play (your defenders weren’t necessary).

Best central defenders according to numbers (and not only)

It is only natural that some of the best central defenders of the competition are of the winning side of EURO 2020, especially since we are talking about Italy. England on the other side, having displayed an excellent commitment defensively, conceived the least goals in the tournament. While everyone’s guess would be that Harry Maguire was the best of English central defenders, or even John Stones, truth is that Tyrone Mings did better statistically speaking, although they all had very similar outputs. Maguire and Stones both completed five more passes than Mings (58.9 to 53.9) and they made more blocks as well (1.1 – 1.5 – 0.9). However, he performed as well in every other category and deserves a mention. The Aston Villa player had more interceptions (3.3 to 1.8 of Maguire and 1.2 of Stones), more clearances (7 to 4.6 and 3.6) without lacking in pass completion percentage (90.6% to 90.5% and 94.4%) and as we said he passed only 5 times less than his teammates per 90 minutes.

You would expect that the team that conceded the least goals, England, would have their central defenders feature in at least one top-10. Did they though? Before we answer to that let’s see how the Italians did. Chiellini was really good, outperformed all three English central defenders in many categories, and evidently performed better than Bonucci too. The only category that Bonucci comes on top is the interceptions (1.7 to 1). Chiellini won almost triple the aerial challenges (3.7 to 1.3), made more clearances (6.1 to 3.1), more blocks (1.6 to 0.9) and more tackles (1.2 to 0.5). He was even part of the group of central defenders that hit 100% in successful tackles against dribbles. In fact, that is his only top 10 mention in any category. England’s only top ten mention is the fourth place of Mings in interceptions (3.3).

There is one team whose players impressed in a certain aspect of play that has become crucial for central defenders. Can you guess which one?

Of course I am referring to Spain. In particular Aymeric Laporte, Eric Garcia, and Pau Torres and their extraordinary performance in ball possession, receiving the ball, moving the ball forward and passing. Their pass completion rate was excellent, (95.2% – 95.5% – 95.9%) coming fifth, third and fourth respectively. Garcia was first in completed passes per game, a staggering 100.5, while Torres was second with 97.9 and Laporte third with 91. I have to mention that Laporte impressed in many categories that we didn’t included in our analysis. He was first in total touches (723) among all players that played regardless of position, similarly first in carries (83) and first in progressive carries distance (2,386). These stats speak volumes of the importance he had in his team’s build-up play and possession. The stats also display better than anyone an important part of Spain’s tactics and preferred style of play.

The question remains: Which player did best in the defensive categories we analysed?

I have made a small list of players that did really well and are included in more than one top-10 and in at least one top-5. The following players have had their chance to impress and prove their worth and they managed pretty well. These are Chris Mepham, Tomáš Kalas, Merih Demiral, Marcus Danielsson, Grant Hanley, Thomas Vermaelen, Darko Velkovski, and Jason Denayer. Demiral achieved first place in interceptions (4.8) and eighth in blocks (2.4). Mepham had the same blocks as Denayer (3) having played a game more. He also was part of the group of players that had 100% success tackling against dribbles. Kalas was third in blocks (2.8), seventh in clearances (8.6) and fifth in aerials won (4.8). Danielsson was first in clearances (10.5) as we mentioned earlier and seventh in interceptions (2.7). Hanley did very well in general, impressed in aerial challenges, coming third (5.9), and was second in interceptions (3.8) and clearances (9.3). Vermaelen was part of the 100% club and was also sixth on aerials (4.4), and fourth in tackles (3.2). Velkovski came second in fouls committed (2.4) and third in tackles (4.1). Denayer just made this list having played just 180 minutes. Along with Mepham they were first in blocks (3), and was also eighth in completed passes per 90 minutes (74).

There are also some players that came first in some important categories, like Bartosz Bereszyński (5 tackles), Kamil Glik (6.7 aerials won), and Duje Ćaleta-Car (2.6 fouls), but didn’t feature in any other top ten.

EURO 2020’s young blood

By now you have read about a lot of different players and how they performed. I have written about players that reached the Semi-Finals and the Final, players that were disqualified early on, some that were magnificent and others that deserved a little bit more than just a mention. Have you noticed anything weird? Please scroll up slowly and read every name I have written. What do all of these central defenders have in common with the exception of just one? Well they are all way over 21 years old!

The only player featuring in my article and is under21 is Eric Garcia of Spain, formerly of Manchester City and currently of Barcelona. Based on his performance he undoubtedly deserves to be named as one of the best talents that played in EURO 2020 as central defenders. This exceptional young player has already played a fair amount of Premier League games and it will be exciting to follow his progress in La Liga. Of course Juventus’ Matthijs de Ligt is still considered an under21 player but who doesn’t know him by now? He had the best numbers among youngsters and was fifth in tackles (3.1) along all central defenders.

Another notable young player was Ukraine and Dinamo Kyiv‘s Ilya Zabarnyi, who also claimed a top-10 position (sixth in blocks, 2.6). Finally Russia and CSKA Moscow‘s Igor Diveev, who was also ninth in blocks and clearances (2.4 and 8.4) and seventh in won aerial challenges (4.4) was excellent at times and looked as good as some of the most expensive players in his position. He deserves more than just a mention for his commitment and hard work.

Where will he end up?

The 1 million dollar question is who will sign Giorgio Chiellini? The experienced central defender who started playing football in Livorno has won everything but a Champions League or Europa League. He is currently without a contract and even at the age of 36 he attracts the interest of some huge clubs. Juventus reportedly wants to keep him in the squad, and might be the favourites at this stage. Real Madrid is also very interested in signing him since they have lost Sergio Ramos to PSG and they might even sell Raphael Varane to Manchester United, as a deal seems close to fruition. Manchester United might be interested if Varane’s deal falls through but that is just a speculation. Similar speculations around Roma’s and Arsenal’s interest will most likely stay speculations and may never translate to offers. If I had to make a guess I would guess that he will stay with Juve.

I really hope that you enjoyed reading the first part of our series. As always we would like to hear from you. Make comments about the players you liked, make suggestions for future articles, send us jokes, invite friends to the discussion and don’t forget to follow us in our social media accounts below.

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