by Ram Srinivas (@rramesss) and Matt Lawrence (@PannasNutmegs)
Centre-backs in the Championship come in many shapes and sizes — well, perhaps not, but they do come with varying skill-sets. They’re tasked not only with safeguarding the keys to the kingdom but in some cases, also with contributing to build-up play. So, who are the centre-backs in the English second tier that are the most proficient on the ball, and what kind of teams would they suit further up the pecking order? That’s what we’ll look to learn over the course of this piece.
What’s a good place to start from absolute scratch? Perhaps the number of passes — overall, long, forward and how good they are at them.
Immediately, the eye darts to the first quadrant of this scatter-plot, where there’s mostly defenders in possession-based systems (Derby, Norwich, Swansea, Leeds, Brentford). Blackburn’s Darragh Lenihan cuts a lone figure as someone who passes more than the league average but with a significantly low accuracy. Is that a construct of Rovers’ system and his role in it? In fact, can that be said for most of the above? Probably, but we’ll need to do some further investigating.
There are names both old and new present in the ‘golden’ first quadrant, some examples of the former being the duo of Jake Cooper and Shaun Hutchinson, who man the defence for Millwall. The ones showing up well on both passing charts are names to watch out for, although we obviously shouldn’t be restricting ourselves to these players just yet — Mike van der Hoorn, Ben Davies, Ahmed Hegazy, Liam Cooper, Adam Webster, Timm Klose and someone who still seems a little out of place in the Championship — Ryan Shawcross!
At this stage, a deep-dive into the characteristics of passing helps paint a clearer picture. What else does make a ball-playing centre-back? Their proficiency at playing the ball forward is one of several steps in the right direction.
We can see that players’ passing styles are heavily impacted by team aesthetics, as those from the same club feature close to each other in the above scatter plot. Players deployed in more patient, possession-based teams can be found in the top-left corner and conversely, moving to the bottom-right corner it’s possible to identify players operating in a direct-style systems as they play a high percentage of forward passes with a low accuracy.
When we identify players passing forward with a high percentage accuracy, this could mean they’re already operating within a possession-based system as suggested by Cameron Carter-Vickers (Swansea City), or that they can be identified as good ball players within systems that are not as conducive to efficient passing. Focusing on the latter, it can be seen that Ben Davies (Preston North End) performs well with regard to quality of forward passing. However,
To take a closer look at ball progression we will be investigating which players move the ball forward more efficiently, and which ones tend to be ambitious in their passes with greater regularity.
When looking at the top performers it can be seen that it is a similar group of players appearing in the top right corner of the scatter plot. This trend reaffirms that a patient possession based system is most conducive to efficient ball progression to the final third (which is hardly groundbreaking!).
Once again, Carter-Vickers features as one of the most efficient progressive passers, along with teammate Joe Rodon, Ben Godfrey (Norwich) and Ezri Konsa (Brentford). Having recorded below-average p90 deep completions, Carter-Vickers seems to have a good sense of timing when progressing play into the final third, quite similar to Godfrey and Konsa. Another observation is that Carter-Vickers, Godfrey and Ezri Konsa are all aged below 23. Could this suggest a possible shift in the style of centre-back that is being produced throughout the English academy system? That’s a discussion for another time.
Ben Davies records a high number of successful passes to the final third, adding more weight to the notion that he may well have the ability to thrive in a more progressive system. Jake Cooper can be seen to be playing a high number of passes to final third p90 with respectable efficiency given the team playing style, which begs one of two questions— does Jake Cooper benefit from having a good target man to stat-pad his numbers or is he capable of playing in a more possession-based system? At the same time, it’s worth noting that when Jaap Stam took over at Reading and implemented a possession-heavy system, Cooper was deemed surplus to requirements.
We’ve now identified some efficient progressive passers but is there a way to tell the difference between players more likely to play a ‘safe’ forward pass and those looking to break the lines or create goal-scoring opportunities more frequently?
We’ve seen that Mike van der Hoorn is an efficient forward passer and this is made all the more impressive when the ambitiousness of his passing is taken into context. He cuts a lonely figure in the top right of the chart (in a good way) as he records 0.35 successful through balls p90, where a through ball is defined as a pass that is played in behind the defence resulting in a goal-scoring opportunity. Meanwhile, Joe Rodon stands out from his Under-21 peers as someone who is efficient with his forward passing but also significantly more ambitious.
Darragh Lenihan and Jake Cooper both make a large number of passes into the final third, although Cooper looks to play a through-ball far less frequently than Lenihan, who actually leads the league’s centre-backs in attempted through-balls per 90 minutes but falls to league average when accuracy is taken in account. In this regard, he is finally separated from his frequent partner at the back, Charlie Mulgrew, who has a through-ball accuracy tending to zero.
Although we are looking to identify ball-playing centre-backs, the primary responsibility of a player in this position is to stop their team conceding goals; after all, any benefit of a ball playing defender is negated if they are unable to defend. So, let’s take a dive into understanding who the best-performing centre-backs are, defensively, within context of their defensive style.
Among the stand out performers in the defensive metrics profiled is Liam Cooper at Leeds, who most notably records over 40% success rate in ground duels. When compared to those playing in Europe’s Top 5 leagues, only one player (Adil Rami) ranks above him in this metric. Playing in a dire Ipswich Town side hasn’t stopped Aristote Nsiala from ranking well within both metrics, showing that despite Ipswich coming under sustained periods of pressure he appears to be a dominant defender.
There’s also a significant presence of the more traditional English centre-back profile that appears in the top right corner of the chart. The likes of David Wheater, Ryan Shawcross and Craig Dawson all have Premier League experience in their career and Michael Hector shows that he’s been dependable at the back for Sheffield Wednesday. These players come from teams all the way through the table and their placement on this chart does not appear to be too heavily dictated by team performance.
Another discussion to be had is, how much does team ball possession impact these numbers? It’s intuitive that a player whose team sees lesser of the ball has fewer opportunities to perform defensive actions. Therefore, here’s a possession-adjusted variant of the above chart that does away with percentage numbers.
There are several recurring names on the top-right, re-affirming our previous observations, although Fikayo Tomori (Derby County) now ranks higher than league average for successful defensive actions p90. In contrast, the likes of David Wheater and Mark Beevers have now regressed.
Finally, before identifying the best ball-playing centre-backs in the Championship, let’s also have a look at the players that are most comfortable with stepping out of defence and playing in the opposition half.
It’s easier to spot the outliers on a graph like this, because centre-backs inherently tend not to attempt many dribbles, or make many deep completions. One outlier of epic proportions is Chris HMS Basham, with fellow Blade, Jack O’Connell, also ranking well; this is a direct result of Chris Wilder’s excellent overlapping-CB system at Sheffield United but if their league position is any indicator, it’s a highly successful one and having wide centre-backs who are comfortable with the ball is a must. Axel Tuanzebe seems like one as well, but it should be noted that he’s spent time at right-back this season, as has Dael Fry.
Jake Cooper is surprisingly among the leaders Deep Completed actions but that’s most likely due to his involvement in set-pieces, which are one of Millwall’s primary scoring outlets; his whopping SIX goals and SEVEN assists, which are insane for a player of his position, provide further proof of this.
Phew, that was a lot of plots to look at! They’ve helped us derive some insights, though, and now we proceed to shortlisting the best ball-playing centre-backs in the Championship.
The Cream of the Crop
Adam Webster (24), Bristol City
A hugely underrated piece of business is Bristol City selling Aden Flint to Middlesbrough and replacing him with Adam Webster for half of that money. With Chelsea loanee, Tomas Kalas, Webster has forged a strong partnership that’s formed a large part of the current third-best defence in the division. While Kalas is the more passive player of the two, Webster an astute additional dimension to the Robins’ build-up play.
One of the greatest assets that Webster possesses is the fact he is equally comfortable playing the ball with either his right or left foot. This, therefore, opens up more angles and passing lanes when progressing play forwards. It is also an added bonus in terms of versatility as he can play on either side of a defensive partnership, a potential bonus for any club looking to recruit. He is arguably the most eye catching of those shortlisted due to his tendency to carry the ball out from defence and ungainly running style. It is this ability to break the first line of of a press with a dribble that can be such a vital asset in a team looking to play out from the back.
Excellent in both, offensive and defensive phases, and having only just turned 24, Webster has a lot of time to filter out the inconsistencies from his game and will surely be in the Premier League sooner or later.
Liam Cooper (27), Leeds United
Cooper is easily the stand out centre-back when looking at the defensive numbers and his place in the Championship Team of the Season is wholly justified. However, what is arguably most impressive is the manner in which Cooper has been able to adapt his game to Bielsa-ball whilst improving several times over. His ability to play long-raking passes from left to right have become an asset to this Leeds side allowing for an injection of tempo to attacks and creation of overloads. As a left-footed centre back he is a finite resource within the EFL, in part due to the passing angles that this creates. As a result, if Leeds do not achieve promotion there may be sides higher up the pecking order looking at him as a fix to their issues.
Mike van der Hoorn (26), Swansea City
It should be unsurprising that Magic Mike van der Hoorn features on our shortlist of ball playing centre-backs, given his background includes having played European football for Ajax and international football in the Dutch youth sides. As discussed previously, van der Hoorn is an efficient passer but it’s his ability to create goal-scoring opportunities from deep that is his most impressive trait. Vital to Swansea’s possession-oriented system, van der Hoorn ranks below the median for average length of short/medium pass, indicating that he keeps things ticking safely at the back but his stellar metrics for final 3rd passes, through balls and forward pass accuracy establish his ability to pick teammates out in good positions at will. He is the perfect example of a player currently operating within a possession based side and is unlikely to take a great deal of time to adapt to a similar system if he were to be signed away from Swansea.
Jack O’Connell (25), Sheffield United
O’Connell is one of the most promising English centre-backs in the EFL and having risen through the lower leagues, he’s now flourishing in Sheffield United’s unique system, within which he operates as an ‘overlapping’ centre-back. Playing on the left hand side of a back three he is given license to rapidly overlap into wide areas, so as to create sudden and effective overloads and deliver crosses into the box. His superb athleticism facilitates excelling in this system and he can be seen effortlessly switching positions to cover for his teammates when required, thus also providing the fluidity which is a core principle of Wilder’s tactics.
The Blades’ marauding centre-back on the opposite side, Chris Basham, deserves a mention as well. At the ripe age of 30, Basham is an absolute nuisance to opposition sides and like O’Connell, plays his role in the side to perfection. It’s always quite a sight to behold as 1.9-meter-tall defender bulldozes his way up and down the pitch!
Ones for the future
Fikayo Tomori (21), Derby County, on loan from Chelsea
Fikayo Tomori has had a huge learning curve this season. We’ll never know if he’d have played as much, were Curtis Davies fit throughout the season but his natural ability with the ball has been brought to the fore and also honed along the way. Tomori doesn’t hesitate to step out of defence and is adept at playing out of the back, as is indicated by the last two metrics on the chart.
Among all the centre-backs profiled so far, he also ranks highest in through balls. His defensive metrics are impressive, although it should be noted that he sometimes relies on his pace to bail himself out of self-borne sticky situations, which is somewhat reminiscent of Kurt Zouma. Another area Tomori needs to work on is being dominant in the air, especially in set-piece situations. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether he’ll play for Chelsea again (history and Chelsea’s pipeline of CBs suggest the odds are heavily stacked against him) but he will end up at a good level for sure. Perhaps he’d be a good move for.. Sheffield United, if they get promoted?
Ben Davies (23), Preston North End
Ben Davies has been a vital part of a resurgent Preston side making a late charge towards the playoffs, having not lost since New Year’s day. This run of form has coincided with his fledgling partnership with Jordan Storey (21), the defensive pair helping return 2.15 points per game. Part of the reason for this upturn in form comes down to improvement in quality of ball progression. Davies has been a consistent performer in this department throughout the season, playing a high number of passes to the final third with impressive efficiency. However, he is now complemented by Storey who is far more proficient in this side of the game than Davies’ early-season defensive parter, Paul Huntington (31), who ranks 66th of the 67 Championship centre-backs profiled for ball progression to the final third.
Joe Rodon (21), Swansea City
Joe Rodon’s break-out season in professional football has been very impressive so far and no doubt, he’s learned a lot playing alongside an experienced head and one of the EFL’s best ball-playing CBs in Mike van der Hoorn. Rodon is dominant defensively and is one of the league’s best progressive passers to the middle third whilst also quite difficult to shrug off the ball when carrying it. Given his inexperience, quite understandably his role in the Swansea XI — much like Cameron Carter-Vickers, when played — is to play lower-risk passes and not bother too much about playing the ball into the final third, as that responsibility is shouldered by van der Hoorn. Rodon is in the perfect environment to be learning to play possession football and his numbers at the end of next season should be very interesting.
Disparities by Design? — Ezri Konsa Ngoyo (21), Brentford
Konsa has found himself on the right-side of both, 4-man and 3-man defensive lines under Dean Smith and Thomas Frank respectively, although he’s played various other positions for his previous club, Charlton Athletic, including midfield and right-back. His versatility and proclivity to have the ball at his feet go hand-in-hand, although within the Brentford XI he’s quite limited with his passing although the same can be said of their other centre-backs as well. Konsa’s disparity between progressive passing numbers and other desirable metrics can, therefore, be put down to design which does not dictate that he plays defence-unlocking passes with regularity. As we saw previously, his accuracy numbers are boosted by the number of low-risk passes attempted but his forward passing efficiency suggests that the potential is there for him to be a quality purchase for a team like Bournemouth, who incidentally signed his former partner-in-defensive-crime, Chris Mepham, in January. Another young English centre-back with a similar profile is Norwich’s Ben Godfrey (21), who also has a history of playing in midfield and is part of a rock-solid duo with Christoph Zimmermann for the league leaders.
The unusual suspect
Darragh Lenihan (25), Blackburn Rovers
Having profiled the league’s four best ball-playing centre-backs and also identified ones with promise, let’s now finally look at an example of what’s best termed as ‘untapped potential’. If the rumour mill is to be believed, Lenihan was linked with a move to Sheffield United in the summer and it is easy to see why Chris Wilder was interested in acquiring his signature. A brief look at the stats shows how defensively dominant Lenihan appears and will provide security at the heart of defence. Given Blackburn’s direct style they play a high number of passes into the final third, and thus with mixed success rates. The one thing that really jumps out of the data is Lenihan’s ability to play passes in behind the opposition defensive line in order to create chances, and his average short/medium pass covers among the most distance in the league. It’s here that he differs from a centre-back with similar numbers, such as Jake Cooper of Millwall, as the video below will elucidate upon.
Although the above clip featured Lenihan mostly playing the ball out long, it’d be accurate to suggest that there are significant stylistic differences between the two players, in addition to the type of passes they try to play. For a better idea of the same, here’s Lenihan against Newcastle United in the FA Cup, where he showcases more mobility and hints of a wider passing range.
His accuracy numbers are hilariously low but from all the scatter-plots looked at, one can gather that Lenihan’s volume of high-risk passes is the highest in the league and few others have comparable ball-playing styles. He’s an extreme outlier in pretty much every metric profiled — regardless of direction — and one can’t help but wonder how he would pan out in a less direct team; less so in the vein of Swansea but perhaps Derby County, where he could be a successor to Richard Keogh. We certainly look forward to seeing how his career will pan out in the near future.