Player Analysis Part 3 – The Defensive Midfielder…

…Or Hunting the Mythical Beast

An interesting, mysterious creature the defensive midfielder. It’s existence is known to us. Sightings are reported with some regularity. But acceptance and knowledge are two very different things. For what do we really know about the DMC apart from the fact that it tends to make it’s home somewhere in between the defensive and midfield lines? Ultimately our vein attempts to catergorize and catalogue the defensive midfielder are scuppered by the sheer range of intraspecies variation. Some appear to be very comfortable in their own half and rarely enter enemy territory, others are more aggressive. Some run head long into their prey whilst others are more cautious, cunning, they bide their time and strike when success is guaranteed. And some seem to be at the heart of all action, controlling the pack, whilst others, well, you’d barely know they were there. A mysterious creature indeed, the defensive midfielder.

(My Pulitzer Nomination for Creative Writing can be e-mailed via the contact link at the bottom of the page)

Nevertheless, our pursuit for the next generation of world beaters must carry on regardless, and so we’ll use some accepted categories of defensive midfielder to realise our noble goals. We’ll discuss and define these categories along the way but before we do it’s worth giving some justification/explanation for the finalised list of players. Entering into this exercise relatively ignorant of the intricacies incumbent to the DMC role I simply scrabbled through the data looking for players classified as DMC and picking out the ones with promising numbers. Foolish, foolish methodologies. The outcome, as can be seen in the final tables is the inclusion of players that are not strictly DMC’s – statistic sites characterise them with the DMC tag but they really aren’t. Unfortunately, removing such players from the list is a surprisingly tricky activity and so in there tghey will remain. I’ll probably recycle them when it comes to looking at Central Midfielders but they won’t be mentioned much more in this piece. And so I have picked out the four players that are most promising in the defensive midfield position.

Here’s the Player Analysis model, click on the DMC tab to see the results. If you haven’t used the Tableau Framework before, take a look at my first piece on Full Backs ( here ) for explanation (but it’s pretty easy to get the hang of, just click around a bit).

The Stopper – Saul Niguez

The first type of defensive midfielder is perhaps the easiest to understand. The stopper, or the destroyer – if you want to get all dramatic about it, is put on a football pitch with the soul purpose of breaking up attacks. He will have pace, strength and good tackling abilities. Arial ability is a plus but other technical skills are only a bonus.

My choice for this position would the Spanish U21 international Saul Niguez. The 19 year old Atletico Madrid player spent last season on loan at Rayo Vallecano where he impressed enough people to have reportedly caught they eye of Everton, Liverpool and Manchester United scouts. No wonder when you can do stuff like this:

Statistically speaking Niguez looks like a stopper; in terms of attacking and passing stats he commonly finds himself at the lower end of the spectrum, but when it comes to defence he excels. He blitzed all competition in terms of his contribution to his teams per game defensive actions:

On average, he was responsible for 17% of Vallecano’s defensive actions per game. His nearest competition was Felipe Gutierrez (12.9%) and Niguez was only just behind the average contribution of the centrebacks studied last week (17.9%). It should come as no surprise then, that the young Spaniard also dwarfed the competition for per game Defensive Contributions:

This is interesting considering Vallecano were one of the most possession oriented teams in La Liga (commonly enjoying 59.5% of the ball), suggesting the opportunities for contributing defensively were less frequent than for some of the other players on the list.

There is a small cause for concern with regards to his tackle success %;

At 37% success, Niguez finds himself near the bottom of the table for tackle success but it can be argued that his seemingly superior ability to intercept and his obvious work rate make up for it. Plus, at only 19, there is still time for improvement.

Market Value: £6.6 Mil

The Carrier – Ruben Pardo

What is a Carrier? Think Yaya Toure, Fernandino or, to a lesser extent, Modric. These are deep lying midfielders that have the ability to make late runs or carry the ball at there feet and disrupt the opposition’s shape. This is the kind of box to box midfielder that has defensive duties but also has permission to relinquish them in favour of joining the attack.

There were a couple of candidates in the list that could be defined as a Carrier but the one who shone the most was Real Sociedad’s Ruben Pardo:

2013 was Ruben Pardo’s break out year. Having played his way into the Sociedad first team, he is now a staple of their midfield. And long may he remain because his stats are pretty impressive. Where to begin…

…lets go for passing. Of the 6 players in the list who played the majority of their games last season in a DMC role, Pardo made the highest number of short passes per game (36) and was the most accurate passer (85.5%):

And of the same group of players, he attempted the second largest number of Long Balls per game (7) and was the second most accurate with them (70%):

For passing overall, Pardo was the 5th highest Passes pG contributor in the entire list and the highest of the stricly DMC players:

He made the most of all this passing too. His Chances Created per Game rate of 1.3 was the joint third highest rate in the list (he was equal to Paul Pogba). But more impressively, he was the only player in the entire list that had a positive European z-score for Assists per game:

This means that Pardo’s Assist per Game rate was 1 standard deviation better than the average rate of the 50 top midfielders (all midfielders – not just DMCs!!) in the top 6 European leagues. Pretty impressive, but that is only my second favourite thing about young Ruben Pardo. My favourite thing is the fact that it’s damn near impossible to get the ball off the slippery bugger. The graph below plots how many times each player turns the ball over in a game against the number of times they get dispossessed:

As you can see, he only gets dispossessed once every other game and hell has to freeze before he turns the ball over. It should come as no surprise then that he was the only player n the list to turn the ball over at a slower rate than the top 50 midfielders:

For those who are starting to get envious of this young man’s impressive skills and shiny dark hair, it may please you to know that Ruben Pardo is not without his flaws. Defensively speaking he isn’t the most active. In fact, out of all the players he made the fewest defensive actions per game and with the second lowest tackle success rate (36%) he is not the best tackler. But, then again, nor is Yaya Toure…

Market Value: £8.8m

The Regista – Johannes Geis

This is perhaps the kind of Defensive Midfielder that gets the most recognition thanks to, in part, the recent work by players like Andrea Pirlo. In defining the Regista I can do no better than Ogo Sylla in his piece ( here ) that provided my education in classifying defensive midfielders:

The regista is an Italian football term that means ‘deep-lying playmaker’. He is a highly technical defensive midfielder, unlike the destroyer, whose primary attributes are offensive one, i.e. Luka Modric. Unlike the defensive midfielder however, the holding midfielder has the luxury and willingness to roam a little farther up the pitch. This of course sounds contradictory to the function of the position, where protecting the defense is the first priority. But the regista is capable of fulfilling this function too, albeit not through physicality and athleticism like the destroyer. As his role’s type might imply, the regista mainly ‘holds’ his position in front of the defense and opportunistically makes key interceptions to cut out opposition threats.

For this prestigious role, I picked out Mainz 05’s 20 year old starlet Johannes Geis. The problem is, though, I am not convinced that Regista is the correct title for him, there seems to be too much to his game to give him that label:

It’s a pretty little video compilation, that’s for sure, but it doesn’t really tell us much about who, or what, Johannes Geis is (in footballing existential parlance). The problem is, I don’t know if I can do much better. I’ll try…

From the clips we can see he, like Pirlo, can pull the fancy pass out of his pocket at the drop of a hat, and the stats tend to agree – he attempted more Long Balls and Crosses per game:

Although he wasn’t particularly successful with the Long Balls, his Cross Success Rate was the second highest:

All these technical passes paid dividends. He created a hell of a lot more chances than the rest of the players on the list…

…and so, unsurprisingly, had a European z-score of 1.3 standard deviations better than the average of the 50 best chance creating midfielders in Europe:

His overall pass success wasn’t great (75%), but only Pardo and Baselli gave the ball away less than Geis:


All this would amount to a very desirable Regista. Problem is, though, there’s more.

For one thing, he is clearly willing to bomb on and get a shot off. The graph below plots Shots on Target against Shot per Game:

We can see that Geis wasn’t as accurate as Ruben Pardo, but he got into shooting positions a lot more frequently. So is there a hint of Carrier in Geis, a Registarrier, if you will? If so it would be a fair assumption that perhaps, like Carriers, Geis’s defensive numbers are detrimentally affected. No such luck. Geis made on average 10% of Mainz’s per game defensive actions – this is the fifth highest percentage in the list and 6.4% better than Pardo.

The only sensible conclusion we can therefore reach is that Geis can be in more than one place at once, as the graph below plotting per game Attacking Contributions against per Game Defensive Contributions seems to show:

If Johannes Geis isn’t imbued with some form of latent teleportational ability then he is an extremely hard working young footballer who is capable of drawing from a extensive set of tools in many areas of the pitch. This is why it would be hard to give him the label of Regista. That is not to say he couldn’t perform the role, or that such a tag is below him, or that he is some new breed of footballer. Perhaps it’s best to say that Johannes Geis is an extremely special talent that is, for now, unlable-able.

Market Value: 7.04m

The Volante – Daniele Besalli

Sometimes, when you do something right, people won’t know you’ve done anything at all. If a phrase could some up the role of the Volante that, my friends is it. I’ve saved this one till last as it’s perhaps my favourite role in football. It’s still relatively understated and glossed over role, but behind the veil of the game, it can be the Volante (a Brazilian footballing term that loosely translates to steering-wheel) that makes all the difference. The Volante is the team’s metronome. He does nothing spectacular but at the same time can be the most important player on the pitch – he protects his defence and is first point of reference for moving play forward from the back.

My choice for this position is Atalanta’s young star Daniele Baselli: (not much video content on the lad out there)

Interestingly, Baselli has recently been touted as a possible future replacement for Pirlo but, judging by the stats, I don’t think he is going to be a Regista – his attacking contributions are relatively low and his passing style seems to be based around the short game (the average Atalanta pass length last season was 19m, Baselli’s was 17m), and what agood short game he plays. Of the five strictly DMC players in the list, Baselli played the second highest number of short passes per game and had the highest pass success rate:

Defensively speaking, he wasn’t the most active – with one of the lowest defensive contribution numbers – but his tackle success rate (50%) was third highest:


Finally, one of the key abilities of a Volante is ball retention – after winning possession in your own final third, there is always a risk of succumbing to residual pressure from an advanced forward line, so a cool head who can play the ball out of congested areas is a useful weapon. Baselli could very well fit the bill here as, like Ruben Pardo, the young Italian is particularly hard to dispossess:


Looking at the overall model I think that Baselli tends to be overshadowed by others in most areas. But I think, in that respect, the model acts as a form of allegorical microcosm for the wider world of football – where players with individual aspects of brilliance in their game garner more attention than those who a more well-rounded. Players like Baselli aren’t always in the spotlight, they don’t commonly make defence splitting passes, perform crunching tackles or score awe-inspiring goals (the above free kick video accepted). They are readers of the game who act when called upon or otherwise go diligently about their off-ball duties. The 22 year old probably won’t mature into a Pirlo, or a Toure but he could become a Carrick, or a De Rossi.

Market Value: 3.52m

Next time, The Wide Men…

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