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Fitting together midfield parts

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A puzzle every week.

Villarreal CF v Sevilla FC - La Liga Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For a stats nerd like me, a day when @StatsBombES fills a request of mine for a radar is always a good one. That happened last week when I asked for the 2019-2020 statistical radar for Vincente Iborra. I was then given another gift. Someone else at the same time requested a radar for Zambo Anguissa, and I had myself the beginnings of an article about midfielders. So, indulge me if you will as I try to show why even a mediocre midfielder can be your most important one, and discuss how the puzzle pieces of our midfield ought to go together.

It’s worth noting that there are a variety of ways to play every midfield position. Generally speaking if I call someone a ‘6’, I am referring to a defensive midfielder/pivote role. If I call them an ‘8’ I am thinking someone who is a bit more box to box with more offensive responsibilities, and a ‘10’ is someone not being asked to play much defense but has a great creative burden. There are a variety of ways to play all three of these positions, but for our purposes today these are the general definitions I’m working with.

Iborra

Vincente Iborra is our most important midfielder, but he also isn’t very good at the role he is trying to fill. These two things can be simultaneously true because of the reality that we don’t really have that true holding midfielder that can be the deep lying playmaker and shield for a defensive line. Zambo has also been tried in this 6 role, but his tendency (and ability) to drive forward with the ball at his feet often leaves him out of position when the side is relying on him to sit back. Here’s Iborra’s radar for this season:

There are only a couple of ways he particularly excels. He has a high pass completion percentage (which just isn’t that important a stat) and he has a very low turnover number per 90. His adjusted tackle number is okay, his xGBuildup is decent, but basically what you see here is a midfielder that moves the ball around at the base of the midfield without turning it over, and that’s about it.

Contribution like this doesn’t really take over matches. It doesn’t inspire the side to victory. All it does it it makes sure that things don’t go completely wrong transitioning from defense to attack and while you would want your 6 to be doing much more than that, when you only really have one player who can get this job done in your whole side, he becomes crucial to your team’s success.

This is why Iborra needs to play almost every match the rest of the season and also why we desperately need a new 6 for next year.

Zambo

Anguissa has spent time in the 6 role this year but where he has really shown is as a box to box 8. His ability to carry the ball at his feet is really his best trait and it’s something that none of our other midfielders really do in quite the same way.

That is downright elite ball carrying ability, and as we saw in an article a few months ago about progressive distance he covers a lot of ground as he does it. The turnover number isn’t great, but it rarely is for someone who is so active a dribbler, and he has a strong defensive contribution as well. Zambo looks particularly good in this role in the 442, where there is no other attacking midfielder above him in the formation. The reason for this is that when there is another midfielder above him on the pitch, there is not as much room for the great runs he makes both on the ball and off. Zambo is going to be most effective if we either remain in the 442 or if, when we set up in the 433, we place him beside another 8 so that there’s no one by default blocking his way up the pitch.

Santi and Trigueros

Santi and Trigueros statistically profile a lot more similarly than I think a lot of people realize. We’ll start with Santi’s radar from his numbers before play resumed earlier this month:

His tackle numbers are surprisingly good for a player of his age with such an attacking bent, and the xG assisted number is a bit inflated by his set piece delivery, which isn’t a knock on Santi it’s just a reminder that what makes him an elite creator is more the total package of his dead balls and his open play rather than just his open play. The number I’m most impressed by is the deep progressions. These are actions that take the ball into the final third and Santi is still great at doing this even at his advanced age.

I wasn’t able to find a radar for Trigueros from either Statsbomb page so what I did was I went to fbref.com (which uses Statsbomb data) and mined some information on Manu.

Both players average a similar number of live ball touches in a match, with Santi a bit more involved in the attacking third- probably a symptom of his teammates looking for the legend a bit more often. Santi gives us nearly 5 shot creating actions per 90 and Trigueros gives us about 3.5, but the majority of the difference there is dead ball chance creation. This gap is narrowed even more when you look at their actual open play goal creation numbers, with Santi coming in at 0.41 per 90 to Manu’s 0.34. What’s particularly impressive about this last stat is that Santi’s number is boosted by dead ball situations in a way Manu’s isn’t, so even though they go about it in slightly different ways, they are similarly involved in creating goals for the side from open play.

Using smarterscout.com style ratings shows more similarities. Both players score within three points (out of a hundred of each other in link up passing, and are in the same ballpark passing towards goal. Where Trigueros shines over Santi (and why I’d like to see him play the opening hour more often) is in disrupting opposition moves and recovering moving balls, both of which he does significantly more often than our elder statesman. Finally, their ball retention numbers are virtually identical, and as men who push the ball forward in attack I think this makes them pretty interchangeable in the offense.

In fact I think these numbers from understat (which use a bit different xG formula than Statsbomb, notably that they count penalties as 0.74xG per attempt) illustrate the point well. When you consider that some of Santi’s creative stats are boosted by dead balls and his xG and goals are boosted by taking penalties, you area really getting similar attacking output from both players:

understat.com

So what does all this mean?

Santi and Trigueros do a similar enough job that in my opinion it’s hard to play them together without a truly stellar 6 behind them. Playing the two of them with Zambo, as we had to against Mallorca, creates a really unstable situation that we can get away with against lesser teams but against the better sides in the league would be suicide.

Manu Morlanes is still growing as a player, and we haven’t seen quite enough of Bruno yet to know what we have there, but as things stand right now Iborra has to start every match. Hopefully Morlanes and Bruno together can contribute enough that Iborra doesn’t have to play more than about an hour per appearance so that he doesn’t fall completely apart, but he and Zambo are really important to the balance of this team right now. When we go 442, Moi is the one who comes in for Santi on the left but Trigueros in that situation is a valid replacement for Zambo. Overall though, we have to be careful of playing Trigueros and Santi together because they don’t cover enough ground and they are too similarly attack minded.

Santi can’t really play a full 90 right now, so whether you think he should start and get pulled less than an hour into every match or that he should come in as a super sub is more or less a philosophical difference more than anything. Our best midfield arrangements right now seem to be Iborra, Zambo, and one of Trigueros or Santi in a 433 and Zambo and Iborra in the 442 with Chukwueze on the right and either Santi or Moi on the left.

In any case, there’s not a ton of depth here given the condensed schedule, and if someone gets hurt our European dreams could go up in smoke in a hurry.