Data Rant: box-to-box midfielders

July 12, 2014 Tags: Data 15 comments
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The soon-to-depart midfielder Anderson was converted from a typical advanced playmaker to an ‘eight’ by Sir Alex Ferguson – the rationale being that the Brazilian has all the attributes of a great box-to-box midfielder. Anderson has not lived up to a promising first season at Old Trafford after joining in 2007, leaving Manchester United short of attacking thrust from central midfield for the past seven years.

Ferguson could afford to get by on a functional midfield partly due to Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes’ excellent passing, but mostly due to a reliance on high-flying wingers. Cristiano Ronaldo’s sheer explosiveness helped mask a pedestrian midfield, while Antonio Valencia, for a while at least, consistently provided dangerous crosses from the right.

That Valencia has suffered two poor seasons in a row, while Ashley Young and Nani face an uncertain future at Old Trafford, says something about the degradation in that department. Luke Shaw and Rafael are exciting young fullbacks, but they are limited by their position on the pitch. Yet, having thoroughly figured out 5-3-2 at the World Cup, Louis Van Gaal might even do away with wingers entirely if he is to get the best out of his United squad.

Central midfielders, therefore, must break the lines to provide attacking impetus from midfield; Ander Herrera has been recruited for that task. The question of whether United actually needs such a player remains though. After all, direct football, such as that employed by Netherlands in Brazil this summer, tends to bypass the middle entirely.

In this Data Rant we look at the best dribbler from each Premier League side’s central midfield then see if their skills have any correlation with points the player’s team earned last season. In figure 1, below, there seems to be little relationship between the two. That is, having a good dribbler in the engine room is not strongly related to winning games.

Figure-1: Dribbles vs Points

Notice, however, that six points are clearly distinguishable from the rest in upper-middle areas – those belong to the top six sides. With these clubs removed, in figure 2, the correlation is stronger. In addition, United is now an outlier – the Reds are the best of the bad bunch and the worst of the good.

Figure-2: Dribbles vs Points

The fact that United’s best midfield dribbler is Tom Cleverley, and that the Reds had the worst such player in the Premier League is, in a sense, interesting. From a purely box-to-box point of view, the Reds should have ranked lower in the table. Put simply, there are other factors that make up for the lack of an all action midfielder.

In figure 3, below, the top four lie above the blue line. It is that line van Gaal’s United must aim for in the coming season. Notice the horizontal spread between these clubs. There are significant gaps between City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal’s best midfield runners, despite little differences in points. This is another piece of evidence that on-the-ball running is not an important a factor in winning football matches.

Figure-3:  Dribbles vs Points

This conclusion runs against intuition, of course. When a skilful midfielder is pinned down, he can work his way out of trouble, enabling his team to create an overload or attacking opportunity. Yaya Touré, for example, would not have scored twenty goals had he not been an exceptional dribbler. Meanwhile, stronger sides have to regularly break down defiant defenses. While holding on to that ball could also earn the team that last-minute set piece, it is relevant to note that any player with the ball can accomplish this feat.

Finally, in figure 4, there is a significant relationship between points and number of take-ons attempted by each Premier League club. United is about 200 take-ons short of the top four.

Figure-4:  Take Ons vs Points

Juan Mata chalked up 52 in his last full season at Chelsea, while Herrera supplied 73 for Athletic in 2013/14. Provided the pair performs to that level in the coming season United should dribble its way into a stronger position in the Premier League table.

This bodes well for Ander’s impact at Old Trafford. United was deficient in many things last season, but at the very least, David Moyes was short an Ander Herrera.

All data from Squawka
A brief note on methodology:
1) All categories are weighted equally
2) Each figure has been adjusted relative to the ‘best’ in each category
3) Assumptions dictating linear regression have not been held strict


David Jerome - July 12, 2014 Reply

Great post

Andy L'oreal Palmer - July 12, 2014 Reply

Dont see how Valencia “could soon be gone” when hes just signed a new contract.

Randsy - July 12, 2014 Reply

Where did you read that? Valencia leaving was not even mentioned!!

Ed - July 12, 2014 Reply

A clumsy edit from me first time round. Although I should say – signing a new contract is a guarantee of absolutely nothing except for United protecting a transfer fee. See P.Evra for evidence.

Zabberdast - July 13, 2014 Reply

…the soon to be gone Pat Evra just signed a new contract at the end of last season…

Matt Lewis - July 12, 2014 Reply

top top analysis as always, teach me your ways

James Dean Procter - July 12, 2014 Reply

I love data, good article.

therealdeal - July 13, 2014 Reply

As you see, all our targets are over 26 years old. And do you know why? Under SAF that would never be happening. SAF would say they are not worth the money.
But van Gaal knows that the only way to get us back into the champions league is to bring in players like Di Maria, Vidal, Robben, Sneijder, Cavani who are almost 30 years old. van Gaal is 62 years old, he has no time to rebuild a team with promising youngsters or academy players. He is under pressure to get the team back into Champions League football so he needs these older, experienced and proven players to do so if he wants to keep his job or he will be out the door just like Moyes. At 62, he probably has three more good years as a manager before he retires, but he will want to get Man United back on top before he retires. Me personally, I would have gone for Antonio Conti.

James Ryddel - July 13, 2014 Reply

Toure isn’t really a dribbler in the Best sense, he relies on power and pace. Totally agree ref LVG axing wasteful wingers.

James Ryddel - July 13, 2014 Reply

United have been playing without a clearly defined tactical plan, that will change now. Players who don’t fit in will go.

Dayus D red - July 13, 2014 Reply

Good work but its news to me thay Yaya Toure is an exceptional dribbler. Power and pace, yes but dribbling, not his strongest.

MunroeL - July 13, 2014 Reply

Surely, not having a ready-made box2box CM, and relying on converting Anderson was a rather risky idea (but it did save money)

Jay - July 13, 2014 Reply

mind you, Anderson was never going to be a number ten

@datarant - July 13, 2014 Reply

re: Toure,

I completely agree that dribbling isn’t his strength but I just picked out the midfielder with most take-on attempts from each team.

therealdeal - July 13, 2014 Reply

van Gaal will get the midfield players and others to get us back competing for the EPL title, and with our schedule, we will be clear on top of the league by several points before we play Chelsea at home. Should be well on top going into the Christmas.

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