Player Analysis Part 5 – Central Midfield

In Search of an All-Rounder

As football tactics progress the term ‘Central Midfielder’ becomes progressively more ambiguous. I mean it was never the easiest possession to pin down – even with a the good ol’ 4-4-2 there would be a more attack minded CM, or perhaps two box-to-boxers a la England’s failed Gerrard/Lampard connection – but now, with the popularity of the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, who or what exactly should a team be looking for in the centre of their midfield? In terms of physical and technical attributes there are some general guidelines – stamina, ball control, good passing, defensive ability – but there are a shed load of midfielders out there that have these qualities and yet still operate in subtly different positions.

We came up against a similar problem a few weeks back when we analysed the new breed of defensive midfielders ( here ). We found that there was a wide range of different styles within the generic DMC category – Registas, Volantes, Destroyers, Carriers – some of which could also be used to define CMs as well as DMs. The beauty of statistical analysis is that it cut’s through the basic attributes of players to look at what their actual outputs are – their KPIs, if you will.

This weeks list of 10 bright young central midfielders exhibits a variety of styles that are manifested by the achievement of an even wider variety of KPIs. As such, different forms of central midfielder come to the fore – Granit Xhaka, for example, is a much more defensively capable midfielder than, say, Roberto Pereryra who is a lot more attacking minded, but not as metronomic as Napoli’s Jorginho. I won’t, however, be discussing these players today because I want to focus on a type of Central Midfielder that is capable of displaying a wide range of statistical outputs on a game-to-game basis.

The Box-to-Box midfielder may fairly be considered to have been a bit of a fad, the final sign of the judgement for the traditional 4-4-2 formation. For, in the slower paced game of some 10 years ago, a midfield engine that could ‘cover every blade of grass’ was a desirable asset. But then the game sped up and quickened at a rate that the Box-To-Box-er could not physically keep pace with. New formations meant new roles for the central midfielder- some stayed back to help their defence, whilst others bombed on to assist with attacks. Think Toure and Fernandinho at Manchester City – two players that had previously been defined as Box-to-Box spent last season playing much more specific roles.

But then this summer happened – Germany won the World Cup with two Box-to-Box midfielders, Schweinsteiger and Kroos, playing in a slightly deeper position, and Arturo Vidal the quintessential B2B became the main target of transfer speculation. Are we then, seeing a rebirth of the B2B? Essentially it doesn’t matter because, as the name implies, a Box-to-Box midfielder is imbued with enough skills to play a number of roles in the centre of the park. And so this week I’ll be looking at the one player from the Player Analysis model that perhaps displayed the widest range of skills over the 2013-14 season.

Here’s the full model, click on the MC tab to look at the Central Midfielders. If you haven’t used the model before, check out our fist post on it ( here ):

Allan – A Modest nom de guerrre

In my experience of compiling the list for the model I found that you can tell when you are looking at a B2B midfielder because there is no general consensus between websites as to what position that player operates in. This was the case with Udinese’s young Brazilian central midfielder Allan – some labelled him as a defensive midfielder and others an attacking midfielder. This is not a black mark against the websites, rather a mark of distinction for a player who is capable of playing such a variety of roles that simple categorization becomes a tricky task – as this neat little video package can testify to:

And they say there’s no value in the market anymore. Well, this young man cost Udinese £3m back in 2012 and he was arguably their stand-out performer last season as we shall see from the model.

Defence

Sometimes looks can be deceptive and sometimes they are spot on. Allan is an example of the latter – he looks like a scrappy bugger, and he is:

DApG-CM

Allan executed the 3rd highest number of blocks per game, the 3rd highest number of clearances per game, the 5th highest number interceptions per game and, with the 3rd highest success rate – the highest number of tackles per game in the list of studied central midfielders. He also contributed to just under 11% of all Udinese’s defensive actions per game – the 4th highest in the list:

Team-DA-Contribution

There should be no surprises then that he was Udinese’s most prolific tackler. Not bad for a £3m investment. But wait, there’s more…

Attacking

Of the studied players, Allan had the highest number of defensive contributions per game and the second highest number of attacking contributions (his loanee team mate Roberto Pereyra pipping him to the post on that one):

AttDef-Contributions

This does however need to be substantiated. The reason for Allan’s impressive levels of attacking contribution is greatly affected by his ability to dribble. Again, only Roberto Pererya completed more dribbles per game than Allan:

Dribbles-pg

An impressive feat but I’ve had my reservations about dribbling in the past. In our last player analysis piece on wide men I suggested that, at a basic level, dribbles were at the low end of the attacking contributions pecking order – every other type definitely ends in at least a shot if not more. If the aim of the game is to score goals dribbling is not, then, necessarily a means to the eternal end and so how much credit can we really give Allan for his high dribble rate?

Looking elsewhere in his attacking contributions doesn’t really help the situation – he didn’t score any goals, rarely shot and his chances created per game rate, whilst decent, was heavily constituted by key passes over actual assists:

ccs

It was at this point whilst fleshing out this article that I thought about shifting focus towards Felipe Gutierrez – another young B2B midfielder with great potential – who created less chances but provided more assists than Allan; but then I watched the Brazilian’s performance against Verona again (video clip above). I came to the conclusion that I had under-estimated dribbles. They are of more value than I gave them credit for especially when, like with Allan on a few occasions, they are performed in a crowded central areas of the attacking third. First, they move the play on, they create space for other attacking players by drawing defenders. Second, they can, and did, lead directly to goal scoring opportunities. Perhaps the latter point should be more common with wide players – and so looking at crossing success rates becomes more important – but a central midfielder who can shift play twenty yards up the field, in any area of the pitch, is a valuable asset.

With all the weaseling out over and done with it should still be kept in mind that Allan probably does still have some work to do on his final play. He was only one of two players in the list not to hit the back of the net last season and his assist rate was the second lowest.

Passing

Fortunately for the young man his passing game seems to be at a higher level of maturation than his chance creation game, although it may not look like it at first glance. Take his short passes per game for example:

sppg

It doesn’t seem particularly astounding but that’s because Udinese didn’t have a great deal of possession in games. In reality, Allan’s 34.2 short passes per game was the highest average at the Serie A outfit last season- meaning he was probably one of the go to guys in Udinese’s build up play.

His overall pass success % was slightly off the pace of the top performers on the list but that can, in part, be chalked up to a poor crossing success %:

pass-success

I say that because Allan’s Long Ball and Through Ball stats are pretty good. He attempted the 3rd highest number of Long Balls per game (4.7) and connected just under 75% of the time. He also attempted the 3rd highest number of Through Balls per game and was successful 80% of the time.

Conclusion

I’ll admit, Allan is not without his flaws and it took a fair bit of justification to get through this one. The simpler choice would have been Gutierrez – he is a fine young player and statistically outshone the Brazilian in several key areas. The reason I stayed with Allan however is because, well one – I’ve probably lauded enough Eredivisie players over the last few weeks, but two because he is an extremely interesting case study. Gutierrez is probably a better player at this moment in time but Allan’s defensive capabilities mixed with his ability to take on defenders in tight areas of the pitch makes for a very hot prospect in the future. Yes, his chance creation rate is probably too low to say he is in the higher echelons of today’s Box to Box midfielders but the raw potential is there. And even if such lofty heights aren’t reached, his passing abilities and defensive prowess still make him a very competent midfielder capable of filling a more specific role – and a player deserving of much more than his current £6.6m price tag.

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