by Ram Srinivas and Matt Lawrence (@PannasNutmegs)
After a deep-dive into centre-backs and subsequently identifying the ones best-suited to a ball-playing role, we have decided to do the same for the players that complete the defensive line — full-backs and wing-backs. However, unlike centre-backs, these are more likely to be two-way players, resulting in a larger palette of roles, or skill-sets that are required in accordance with their responsibilities in a team. Therefore, over the course of this article we’ll be looking to not only gauge how metrics are spread across players and team styles, but also identify the types of full-backs in the Sky Bet Championship and gauge how good they are at what’s asked of them.
So, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about a full-back? Overlapping runs, mazy runs? Crossing? Let’s start from thereabouts.
1. Crossing and Dribbling
Rather than looking at pure crossing numbers, we’ve plotted the percentage of passes played that are crosses in order to negate the effect of a team simply having more of the ball and inflating a player’s crosses per 90.
A number of full-backs from the same team feature close to each other and these represent, in part, team styles; see Middlesbrough, Bristol City, Wigan, Stoke and Norwich City. On the other hand, Jake Bidwell of QPR, the league leader in Cross-Pass ratio is in a different space from the right-backs in his team, Darnell Furlong and Angel Rangel.
Evidently, there are full-backs that look to cross less than others. What kind of role do these players have in their teams? A simple eye-test of, say, a Norwich City match would confirm that lesser crossing numbers do not correlate with the offensive/defensive nature of a full-back. This notion is only further strengthened by the distribution of dribbles against crosses.
It’s intriguing that the two standout performers in terms of volume of dribbles p90 are playing for teams that battled against relegation. From the plot we can see that both Blackburn and Norwich possess full-backs willing to carry the ball and play in 1v1 situations. This can provide a vital outlet for teams and is a contributing factor of why Norwich won the Championship. It’s not only possible to see symmetry within the data for teams, but also how sides employ stylistically contrasting players on either wing. Let’s take Swansea as an example; we can see Martin Olsson in the upper right quartile and Connor Roberts in the lower left quartile, this suggests that while he was fit, Swansea deployed a ball carrying full-back in Olsson on the left and a progressive passer in Roberts on the right. A similar case could be made for West Brom’s Tosin Adarabioyo and Kieran Gibbs.
Anyhow, that’s as equitable a distribution across all four quadrants as you’ll see, which means… there are full-backs that like to get forward and take a man on but their tendency to cross is below league average? That may be obvious to some but for the sake of this process, let’s pretend it’s not. It’s still too early to zero in on a discrete type of attacking full-back, though, so let’s see how involved they are in the penalty area and how many passes they play within the final third.
2. Involvement within final third and penalty area — are there types of attacking full-backs?
It is hard for the eye not to catch the eye of the two Sheffield United players that occupy the top right area of the plot, with their teammate Enda Stevens not far behind. This is one example of understanding which teams deploy a system with advanced full-backs when in possession. The high number of touches in the opposition box coupled with a high number of passes to the final third shows the advanced positions Chris Wilder likes his wide players to take up. A similar trend is also apparent within the data when viewing Brentford full-backs Henrik Dalsgaard and Moses Odubajo. However, when viewing Leeds’ full-backs Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas we can see both take a high number of touches in the box but there is a disparity in crossing frequency. This also applies for Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis, the prodigious Norwich City pair.
Clearly, this graph along with the previous one showed us that full-backs attack with various nuances which prove to be effective separators, and from here we’d like to introduce the concept of build-up-oriented attacking full-backs such as Connor Roberts, Max Aarons & Jamal Lewis and cross-oriented ones like Reece James and Jay Dasilva. These divisions will be further elucidated upon in the next section, but for now there’s still a lot more to dissect in full-back play. Their passing styles, for instance. Some full-backs are stay-at-home types and some like to get forward, but in what manner? What combination of efficient, wasteful, voluminous and measured are they with regard to forward passing? And do they progress ball possession further up the field with short passes or long passes?
3. Passing Styles — Short or Long?
This plot shows us two things — which players pass more, and do they play long passes more or short ones? Those of all four combinations exist, although there are only a few that play more passes overall, but with with a larger percentage made long. What’s missing from this information is the length and accuracy, so now we look at passes by length and accuracy.
Now we can clearly see what kind of passing styles full-backs have, who tends to play safer/less safe passes, and how accurately. Looking at the top three ball-possession teams, there’s a clearly-marked territorial difference between Norwich and Leeds, with the full-backs in Marcelo Bielsa’s side regularly playing more direct, medium-length passes (even if short/medium) than their counterparts at Norwich, with Brentford’s full-backs falling in between the two. Preston North End have the most disparity, all four full-backs spread across all four quadrants. As for long passes, Birmingham and Middlesbrough are accurate with their long-passing, although the trio of George Friend, Ryan Shotton and George Saville look to hit it much longer than Wes Harding, Kristian Pedersen and Maxime Colin.
Bristol City’s Chelsea loanee, Jay Dasilva, shows up very impressively as one of the only players in the top-right of either graph with a consistently high accuracy. He appears to be one of the best progressive passers in the league for sure, but let’s look further into progressive passing before validating our intuition.
4. Passing progression — Efficiency and Volume
One by one, we’ll look at how full-backs fare in terms of passing forward and passing to the final third of the pitch. For further context, the dot sizes will vary according to percentage of long passes played.
A criticism that is often levelled at full-backs from fans in the stands is that full-backs will play safely inside and not look to progress play forwards. Here we can see that Rotherham’s full-backs rank highly in the number of forward passes, likely due to the direct style that Paul Warne employs. In contrast we can also see that the Norwich full-back pairing is far less direct and the percentage of passes to the final third is far less. In addition it is apparent that Villa’s full-backs are the most efficient high volume passers. Connor Roberts, Saidy Janko and Kyle Naughton are the league’s standouts when it comes to passing efficiency. It is worth noting that two of the three play for Swansea, thus posing the question; is this due to Potter’s tactical system or individual quality? On the other hand, George Friend appears to have been perfect for Middlesbrough’s direct approach, passing forward and into the final third with a high volume and accuracy. Darnell Fisher is another similarly-performing full-back. This data has also added more context to the case of Jay Dasilva, identified earlier as potentially one of the best progressive passers in the league. A larger part of his passes are not played forward but when done so, are more likely to be played to the final third and with the third-highest accuracy in the league. Given his passing length numbers and that more than a quarter of his passes are played within the final third, it’s fair to say he’s the most consistent with progression, even if not actively in the forward direction and more often than not, plays more high-risk passes than others.
So we’ve looked into how full-backs in this league pass, and identified which ones are more likely to aid progression from deeper or further up the pitch. Now let’s do the same for creativity.
We’ll use two metrics for this, Smart Passes (a line splitting pass beating 2 or more opponent players) and xA, or Expected Assists. While Smart Passes will tell us how many creative passes the player tends to play in a general context, xA depicts the value of shooting opportunities created on an average — the quality of final ball.
Rather unsurprisingly we can see that the standout performer in the xA metric is Reece James. He has been a revelation at Wigan this season registering a league high xA of 0.21. All the more impressive is that he was handed set piece responsibility for the club such is the quality of his delivery. Both full-backs to have played on the left for Leeds also feature towards the top end of the plot. Added credit should be given to Bielsa for his conversion of Ezgjan Alioski to a full-back in the latter half of the season.
A look to the extremities of the smart passes metric throws up an unlikely name (at least for us) in the shape of Cuco Martina, who has now moved onto pastures new. Both Derby full-backs, Jayden Bogle and Craig Forsyth feature highly in smart passes, suggesting that the progression of play via the full-backs is a key feature of Frank Lampard’s side. Scott Malone, on the other hand, began to be used as a more direct option following Forsyth’s season-ending injury.
Meanwhile, the presence of three Wigan full-backs on the top left highlight the Latics’ deep-crossing and chances created from the same. Kal Naismith, albeit spending time as a left-winger, spent most of the season covering for Antonee Robinson at left-back and ranks second in xA per 90.
6. Defensive Performance
Readily available defensive metrics are terribly limited by design, to say the least. But we’ve worked with what we have access to, which are Aerial & Defensive Duels, and standard metrics such as Tackles, Interceptions and Blocks with possession adjustment.
Looking towards the top right quadrant we can see full-back pairings from West Brom, Brentford and Leeds. This could mean one of two things: they are particularly adept defenders, or they are left exposed by the system they play in and hence uncharacteristically busy.
Let’s start with a player that falls into the first category, Tosin Adarabioyo. He is the stand out performer in the defensive metrics, getting through a lot of work and with good efficiency. We shouldn’t be too surprised by this outcome as he has spent the majority of his early career playing as a centre-back.
As an example for the latter, consider Brentford. Given their away form and the advanced positions they adopt the conclusion can be drawn that the expansive football they try to play may well be leaving areas of the side exposed, in this case the full-backs.
George Saville, who hasn’t been nearly as bad as made out to be since his switch to left wing-back, is one of the most dominant defenders in terms of ground duels. The defensive solidity among Preston’s full-backs is also apparent, with all of them but Tom Clarke featuring on the top-right.
As for dominance in the air, we’ve also thrown player height in the mix to gauge how well players approach aerial duels. There are worrying signs for Brentford’s Henrik Dalsgaard, who is among the tallest, yet is involved in several lost aerial duels. Yet again, Adarabioyo’s dominance shines through, alongside Ryan Shotton and George Friend; one can see why the pair were so important to Tony Pulis’ side. Conor Townsend and Jack Robinson are shining examples of players among the shortest in the league, yet placing very high for aerial duels won. They’re surely examples Jay Dasilva will be looking up to.
Now that we’ve got an overview of metric performance, trends and distribution in the league, let’s take a look at some of the standout players we’ve identified. We’ve taken the approach of clustering full-backs to try and differentiate between them stylistically. This approach is explained below and hopefully allows for the full spectrum of full-backs to be analysed.
The first step in the clustering process was to find out to what magnitude, or volume, full-backs attempt certain ‘per 90’ metrics. After some filtering out/feature selection, the ones remaining were,
- Passes attempted
- Short Pass Ratio; the % of passes played short
- Cross Ratio; the % of crosses in total passes played
- Touches in box
- Forward Pass Ratio; the % of passes played forward
- Length of short/medium pass
- xA, or Expected Assists; the likeliness of a shot-assist ending up as a goal
- Smart Passes; as defined by Wyscout, a smart pass is ‘for significative pass or smart pass in general. Something more than a simple pass, not so easy to be done. There has to be some idea in the pass, something creative, when the player is cutting the lines and winning some advantage for his teammates with this pass, leading them in good position to attack. The pass should be between 2–3 opposite players.’
- Final Third to Forward Pass ratio; the % of forward passes played to the final third
If you’re wondering why defensive metrics are missing from the cluster analysis, the reason is once again, that the freely available defensive metrics aren’t nearly as descriptive enough to help characterise players into groups. In any case, we believe that defensive numbers should be part of a separate cluster analysis altogether; perhaps a project for another time.
For now, we’ve identified the following five groups of full-backs by applying K-Means Clustering against binary-valued representations of the aforementioned metrics, their values determined by placement above/below the league median.
Note: While this method is relatively naive in approach albeit the results turning out more than functional, the concept of comparing players within a cluster is one that we’ll look to elaborate on in further articles, possibly using greater ranges than binary-valued and a different clustering method.
A: Direct & cross-oriented
Propah’ full-back, you say? This cluster of players is best identified by their direct passing play and high tendency to cross the ball, more often than not from deep. Several team-specific trends in Wigan, Bristol City, Middlesbrough, Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday are on show here.
B: Progression-oriented & defensive
C: Progression-oriented & attacking
Clusters B and C consist of full-backs who have a comparatively lesser tendency to cross the ball, and are more oriented towards progression, which is essentially getting the ball further up the pitch with direct passes, or playing high-risk passes in advanced areas. In our previous iterations of cluster analysis, B and C were a single cluster but there was, firstly, a clear demarcation in those full-backs who play deeper (and consequently pass more to the final third) and those who venture forward and stay there for more sustained periods (therefore not passing to the final third as much). Another reason was there were a couple of clear examples of players (think Kyle Naughton and Andy Yiadom) who could easily belong to the next cluster, which is that of Build-up oriented full-backs.
As a conclusion, Cluster B features full-backs exclusively from teams who prefer a more direct brand of football, while Cluster C also contains players from more possession-oriented sides in Derby County and Aston Villa.
D: Build-up oriented
What we like to term as Build-up oriented full-backs are those who are likely to be involved in a move from start to finish, from deep in their own half to the opposition third, usually with shorter-range passes. These full-backs don’t cross as much as others but are very dynamic with a high tendency to dribble past an opponent and even get involved in the opponent’s penalty area. Blackburn, Brentford, Leeds’ first-choice full-back pairing and Norwich City have significant representation in this cluster while there are several one-offs as well; most notably Sheffield United’s Kieron Freeman and Derby’s Jayden Bogle.
E: Cross oriented & attacking
These are full-backs who do exactly as described — they cross a lot, and are more than happy to venture forward. Jay Dasilva, who does have a tendency to play further up than his right-back, is present in this cluster rather than Cluster A, which contains the Robins’ other three full-backs. George Saville’s presence in this group can be explained by Tony Pulis’ forced shift to a 3–5–2 consisting of purely midfielders in the line of 5, with Saville and Jonny Howson playing naturally more attack-minded than George Friend or Ryan Shotton did previously. As goes for Kal Naismith of Wigan Athletic, whose time as a left-winger and natural tendency to play higher has influenced his cluster identity, which ties into the concept of some stylistic differences innate to a player drawing him away from his teammates’ clusters.
Note: All of the above cluster names, of course, represent the stand-out characteristics of each group but one will also find that the other metrics in consideration are more or less close to each other within respective clusters. Some utilities of this clustering we’ll be exploring in the future are cluster-specific comparison and identifying replacements in other leagues.
Now that we’ve analysed metric distributions, team styles and player categories, let’s move on to the final part of this article, which is to profile some individual full-backs.
Reece James (19, RB) — Wigan Athletic
Cluster: Direct & cross-oriented
The 19 year old has been an absolute revelation during his debut season in senior football helping to secure Wigan’s Championship status for 2019/20. The youngster has amassed a whopping 3,972 minutes this season, having impressed so much at full-back he was shifted to the heart of the Latic’s midfield in the latter part of the season. Furthermore, James has been a well-rounded player since his days at the Chelsea academy in Cobham, so the switch in position during the last two months of the season was seamless.
The most noticeable statistic is that James is amongst the most creative full-backs in the league having registered an xA of 0.21 p90, a league high. This is in part due to James’ direct, bullish style and the fact he has been given the responsibility of being Wigan’s chief set piece taker. He may not show up as one of the best crossers of a ball in the league, data-wise, but it’s important to keep in mind that most of his teammates fare similarly. For a team reliant on full-backs crossing from deep, the chances created haven’t been lacking but the dearth of incision in capitalising on them has impacted James’ numbers in that regard. Built like a tank and not wanting for mobility either, he always proves to be tough for the opposition winger to get past.
A calm head while in possession, sturdy in the tackle, an expansive passing range, excellent technique while crossing and in dead-ball situations… even long-range shooting; you name it, Reece James has got it. His forward passing efficiency might look abysmal on the face of it, but when numbers are as extreme as his (all but highest in final 3rd to forward pass ratio) then it calls for a deeper look into things. Hearkening back to passing lengths, his long passes on average covered among the most ground. A more holistic view of the data tells us that James’ Forward Pass Ratio is on the lower side but most of his forward passes are very long passes directed towards the final third. That explains the passing accuracy percentiles, which is now not necessarily something to balk at.
James has arguably made the best of his direct-styled role at Wigan, and is more than ready to take a place in Chelsea’s first-team squad.
Max Aarons (19, RB) and Jamal Lewis (21, LB) — Norwich City
Cluster: Build-up oriented
The young full-back pairing of Aarons and Lewis have played an instrumental part in Norwich’s promotion. Their performances this season have been too good for us not to notice as a result they’ve both been a stand-out player within the build-up oriented cluster. Let’s kick off by taking a look at Max Aarons.
The first thing that springs to mind is how Aarons has taken to the possession-based style of football that Daniel Farke has implemented at Norwich, this can be seen by him having one of the shortest pass lengths in the league. This suggests that he looks to get involved in the build up phase creating overloads high up the pitch in order to reach the byline and deliver cutbacks rather than tossing low percentage balls into the box. His creativity on the ball can be seen by the fact that he registers above-median for full-backs in xA p90. As is often the case these days, modern attacking full-backs can be labelled as only having the ability to go one way. This is not the case with Aarons; he possesses the ability to carry the ball, as well as, the pace to recover and defend astutely 1v1 when possession has been turned over high up the pitch. This can be backed up in the numbers as he registers above average defensive duels and successful dribbles per 90 minutes. Another noteworthy characteristic shared by Aarons and partner-in-crime, Lewis, is their proficiency at playing in tight spaces and interlinking with the narrow-sitting attackers playing in front of them.
Moving onto look at Jamal Lewis it is almost uncanny how closely both Norwich full-backs numbers are aligned, thus, much of the above can be applied to Lewis. This is testament to the system that Farke has implemented in that he has full-backs with near identical profiles on both flanks. Arguably the most notable difference is that Lewis records a lower pass completion to the final third. He also goes about his aerial duels in a more robust manner, and covers a little more ground with his passes than Aarons. With Norwich moving into the Premier League we’re excited to see how the two youngsters fair playing at a higher level and are excited about their futures.
Connor Roberts (23, RB/LB) — Swansea City
Cluster: Build-up oriented
With 4242 minutes played, it’s safe to say Connor Roberts is a believer in the one true answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.
Jokes apart, Roberts is another player which falls into the attacking, build up oriented full-back category. As the standout player in terms of passing accuracy, both in passes to final third and forward pass metrics showing just how an assured ball player such as Roberts can prosper within Graham Potter’s possession-based system. Even spending several games as a winger, Roberts is usually deployed as the more attack-minded full-back, whether that’s on the left or right.
He is near-faultless while playing in the final third or progressing possession with forward passes and thus, helps Swansea maintain pressure during attacks. In addition, his ability to make underlapping runs into the penalty area and get into threatening positions has added an extra dimension to the Swans’ attacks this season. Whether it’s shooting at goal or delivering the final ball — as evidenced by his xA p90 — Roberts has been relatively productive in Swansea’s attacks as well, and is far from one to suffer ‘final ball’ syndrome.
Over the course of the season, he’s also improved his awareness while playing in tight spaces deep in the Swansea half. Graham Potter’s brand of football can often rely on drawing out the opposition press and then expertly playing past it with quick, incisive passes and this is another role Roberts has grown into. Like most young players at Swansea under Potter, Roberts’ development has come in leaps and bounds and bodes well for seeing him at a higher level in the years to come.
Andy Yiadom (27, RB/LB) — Reading
Cluster: Progression-oriented & attacking
Following relegation from the Championship with Barnsley in 17/18, Yiadom was snapped up on a free transfer by Reading. Despite being involved in another relegation battle, he has offered consistency in a team that has been lacking such a quality. As a result he was voted the club’s unofficial player of the season by the fans on Reading fansite, The Tilehurst End.
One of the reasons Yiadom has thrived in a team that has seen three managers throughout the season is his ability as a modern day two-way full-back. Yiadom has proven himself to be an incredibly proficient ball carrier as he leads the league in dribbles per 90 with 5.5, over double the league average. These dribbling skills have been valuable to a Reading side that has struggled with creating opportunities. Yiadom has the ability to play high and go down the line to create crossing opportunities, as well as dribbling inside in deeper positions to evade the opposition press. He’s also a vital outlet for providing width to attack, given the inverted nature of Yakou Meite’s positioning in front of him. As a result, this often leads to him having to dribble out of trouble, this is often done from deep hence the low number of crosses p90.
In addition to this Yiadom is also capable of carrying out his defensive duties, it can be seen that he ranks well above average in defensive actions per 90, hardly a surprise given Reading’s struggles. However, when we dig a little deeper we are able to see that Yiadom leads the league in blocked crosses per 90. This is a valuable asset to have from a full-back as it allows for the threat to be cut out at source rather than potentially dangerous balls being played into the box.
Enda Stevens (28, LWB) — Sheffield United
Cluster: Cross-oriented and attacking
The 18/19 campaign was only Stevens’ second full season in the Championship and resulted in automatic promotion to the Premier League. Stevens was a pivotal part of the side featuring in 45 of 46 Championship games as part of an eye-catching Sheffield United team. This is a team that became well known for its overlapping centre-backs,but what sort of implications does this have on the full-backs?
In an attacking sense this means that the full-backs or wing-backs in the case of Stevens are playing in a system which facilitates overloads in wide areas. As a result of playing in such a dynamic system we can see that Stevens has performed well in terms of creativity this season, ranking above average in terms of xA per 90. However, one area in which Stevens has excelled this season is smart passes, suggesting that he has the passing ability to break the lines and progress the ball into positions which can hurt opposition teams. It is safe to say that Stevens does not get the proverbial ‘nosebleed’ that some defenders suffer when getting into advanced positions. If anything Stevens is very much at home in the opposition box as he ranks fifth in the league and records 1.7 touches in the opposition box per 90 minutes. However, the focus should not be solely upon Stevens’ ability to go forwards, it his all round ability that makes him such an asset to this Sheffield United side. He also deserves credit for his tactical awareness and ability to play in such a fluid tactical system. It will be intriguing to see how both he and Sheffield United fair next season in the Premier League.
Jay Dasilva (21, LB/LWB) — Bristol City
Cluster: Cross-oriented & attacking
If you’ll allow a few words of banality — big things sometimes come in small packages and Jay Dasilva may have a diminutive stature of 5’4’’ (164cm) but what he lacks in height is made up for in other aspects of his game. That’s not to say he’s a slouch defensively, even though the numbers place him among the worst in Aerial and Ground duels. He’s a player who is well aware of his deficiencies but adapts his game to work around them, as does manager Lee Johnson in deploying Dasilva, keeping him out of matches against very direct side who are likely to bombard his flank with long balls.
To begin with, Dasilva’s involvement in duels — both aerial and ground — is well below league average. Rather than jump into a challenge, he’s more likely to close down an opponent’s angles and commit when the moment is right. When it comes to aerials, there’s more of a linear correlation between aerial challenges attempted and those won, hence he naturally has a lower success rate. He’s the shortest player in the league by 4cm, so it also follows from there that he’d have a lower success rate. At this point, only the eye-test can truly indicate whether he’s actually quite terrible at winning the ball in the air but the signs from there are encouraging; he may not be the defender to man-mark a lanky opposition player during a set-piece but in open play, Dasilva shows a good leap and real tenacity to win the ball, even when his adversary is towering over him. We believe this is something that he will only develop with further experience, and with reasonable cause as well — Dasilva has had to adapt his defensive game twice over now, in physical leagues that are the Championship and League One. On either occasion, he’s had a slow start but eventually made himself indispensable to his loan club.
Dasilva’s contributions in build-up play and the final third are invaluable to the Robins. He is quite comfortably, among the (if not the best) best-passing full-backs in the league. A larger percentage of his passes fall under the ‘short/medium’ category, rather than ‘long’ but he consistently appears among the most accurate, in either subdivision of length and in crosses as well. Furthermore, Dasilva’s length of pass, regardless of type, is high which denotes his proficiency at successful progression of possession. Coupled with his high xA and Smart Pass metrics, it’s clear that he’s one of the most potent threats in the league among those in his position. With more minutes under his belt next season and subsequently, a greater understanding of adapting his defensive game to his physical limitations, Jay Dasilva will have what it takes to cut it at the very top.
The Darlings of Data
In this section, we’ll be looking at a couple of players with very strong data profiles but have gone somewhat under the radar.
Luke Ayling (27, RB) — Leeds United
Cluster: Build-up oriented
The tale of Leeds United’s season has been tragic to say the least. Ultimately, their poor form at the end of the season and some individual errors cost them dear but nothing will take away the fact that they played some of the most effective, rapid attacking football in the league.
Luke Ayling, in a similar manner to Connor Roberts as elucidated upon above, was a constant feature in Leeds’ ‘heavy metal’ attacking moves. Bombing up and down the right and even dropping into central areas during build-up when required, Ayling compares to Roberts in several ways, including his willingness to make runs into the penalty area and let fly at goal. Where the two differ is in Ayling’s more direct nature of play; the right-back is not only involved in keeping possession in defence but also plays several direct, forward passes between the lines as is true to Bielsa-ball. This is reflected in his ‘Smart Pass’ numbers as well, indicating that he’s looking to light the spark in attack more often than Roberts.
Unfortunately, Ayling has been a victim of inconsistency and also the presence of Jamie ‘The Tornado’ Shackleton (as christened by Bielsa’s translator, Salim Lamrani), a tenacious, talented young player behind him in the pecking order. There have often been calls to replace Ayling with Shackleton at right-back but despite it all, there’s no denying that the 27-year-old, among several others in the Leeds United squad, has seen a massive personal improvement this season.
Darnell Fisher (25, RB/LB) — Preston North End
Cluster: Direct & Cross-oriented
With a chequered history of perceived attitude problems and other ineffable issues supposedly hindering him from reaching his true potential at previous clubs Rotherham and Celtic, Darnell Fisher’s impressive season at Preston North End has understandably flown under the radar. Deployed mainly at right-back but also on the opposite flank when required, Fisher has fit hand in glove at Deepdale, with Alex Neil’s side deploying full-backs who look to play directly more often and provide width in attack.
Similar to Luke Ayling, Fisher has one of the most all-rounded statistical profiles among full-backs in the Championship. Despite his seemingly no-nonsense, direct approach, Fisher ranks better than the median in Smart Passes and makes the 80th percentile for xA as well, leading one to believe his actual assist numbers would be higher than 4 if Preston’s strikers had fewer woes in front of goal. Preston tend not to apply sustained periods of pressure in the final third but Fisher is capable of making up the extra man in the penalty area, as is demonstrated by his high ranking for touches in the penalty area. He also has some of the best crossing numbers in the league, crossing more than the median with an accuracy well above it. All this, whilst generally solid in defence, Fisher is not one to shy away from a tackle although concerns have been raised regarding concentration lapses. Another criticism that can be levelled against him is that despite his pace, Fisher can very easily run into nothing, or an opposition defender. Time is on his side yet, though. As he slowly enters his prime years, there’s no reason why he can’t eventually make the step up to a team challenging for automatic promotion, or even in the Premier League.
Jayden Bogle (18, RB) — Derby County
Cluster: Build-up oriented
It could be argued that Derby County’s precocious right-back, Jayden Bogle, has had his breakout season in senior football but to us, he’s only just beginning to break out. For someone who had featured for Derby’s Under-23 team only a couple of times before transitioning into a first-team regular, it was never going to be easy and Bogle has had a bumpy path of development since his debut in August. While his talent and proficiency as an attacking full-back (especially over Andre Wisdom) were apparent from the very start, he certainly made his fair share of mistakes and then some. He always looked like someone with the potential to be extraordinary going forward, although for every stunning run past three defenders, there’d be several frustrating ones preceding it. His crossing also left a lot to be desired initially and defensive lapses were aplenty.
However, to both his and manager, Frank Lampard’s credit, he’s turned out all the better for it and began to visibly mature towards the final third of the season. With more control over his mazy runs forward and several accurate crosses turned into goals or chances off the head of Martyn Waghorn, Bogle even chipped in with a couple of excellent goals during Derby’s play-off run-in. Along with Fikayo Tomori at centre-back, he is now a key player for Derby when it comes to breaking past the first line of an opposition press with his quick feet and also a very crucial (now reliable) attacking outlet. From wavering youngster, he’s now indispensable to the Rams. That being said, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Bogle is the subject of interest from Premier League clubs as soon as this summer. It’s going to be a pleasure watching him continue his development next season, whatever may be the level.
All said and done, despite all the individual players profiled, we’re bound to miss out on a few that have been important to their team’s showings this season, or with similarly impressive data profiles but we’d like to think there were a lot of bases covered through the course of the article. While the two-way nature of full-backs required an extensive look into data, it also opened our eyes to the quality of such players available in the Championship, especially when it comes to young players. We hope this was as enjoyable to read as it was to write!