England centre-backs: What should we do?

So, England have lost to Uruguay and now rely on the ‘if this happens and this happens and we do this’ method to qualify from the group. The post-mortems are everywhere and almost everyone is being blamed somewhere. One of the areas that is being focussed on is the centre-backs, though, and that’s something that I’ve been looking at recently.

This article might be a longer read than you are prepared to put yourselves through so I will sum it up here: England should drop Jagielka to the bench and put one of either Chris Smalling or Phil Jones into the starting XI alongside Gary Cahill (Jones gets my personal vote). If you want to read on, please do.

I’ve been looking at defensive statistics for the past few weeks, for centre-backs as they generally only have one job to do – defend. You won’t see many hard numbers here because most numbers will be average tackles or clearances per game which, to be honest, don’t mean much. If you are in a poor team you will be making more tackles and clearances; just because you clear the ball 6 times a game doesn’t make you a good defender.

However, there are some numbers that are useful. I’ve taken various defensive stats (such as, but not exclusively, tackles and clearances), weighted them and adjusted them for the dominance of the defender’s team in that match, and then I’ve done that per shot on target and shot blocked. Also of interest to me are percentages of successful tackles and aerial duels.

As I see it, there are 4 main central defenders vying for the 2 England centre-back spots: Cahill, Jagielka, Smalling and Jones. There is also Joleon Lescott on the fringes, but because of his age he would only realistically be a replacement for Phil Jagielka – they’re just one day apart, both within months of their 32nd birthday. Lescott also played even less at centre-back than Jones and Smalling this season, so a) his statistics may not be reliable and b) it’s unlikely he’ll have the match experience and fitness for being a starting international player. All of the figures I have used have been when the players have been at centre-back.

England CB defensive statsOf these 4, in the overall defensive statistics, Phil Jones comes out on top. Then comes Jagielka (I know, I said he should be dropped, just wait), then Cahill, then Smalling, though the gap between those last two is small.

England CB defense per shotThe defensive statistics per shot on target and shots blocked (including both categories as both, on average, show pressure the team is under, and pressure that could be averted if defenders had stopped the threat before then), the results are slightly different. Chris Smalling comes top with Phil Jagielka narrowly behind, with Gary Cahill only slightly further behind them. Phil Jones close by, but not as close as Cahill is to the top 2.

Both of these measures together are a good indication of average pure defensive performances and should be looked at together as both can be skewed – the first category by quiet games and the second by bizarrely dominant games in terms of shots on target. Looking at these, we see that neither Cahill nor Jagielka topped either category, therefore there is a clear argument for incorporating Smalling or Jones. On those two categories alone, I would take Smalling over Jones, as the first category can sometimes suffer from being unable to separate a busy game from a particularly good one, which the second category helps with.

Out of curiousity, where do these figures sit with other defenders in the Premier League? Well:

Centre backsThese are only the centre-backs I have had time to look at, but there is a decent selection of players from both the top and bottom of the Premier League. Interestingly, Curtis Davies at Hull is above Cahill and Smalling in the first category and, in the second (but possibly more important) he is only just below Phil Jones.

However, you then have to look at reliability. I’ve used a few figures for this, the success rate of the defensive features and the completion rate of passes in their own defensive third. The first of these I think of as a general reliability figure and the second as a proxy for how error prone the player may be (from the data I’ve collected, it does seem to bear out that the players with a lower defensive third pass success are the ones you’d think of as liable to make an error eg Martin Dimichelis).

If you look at these two figures combined, Jones does the best of the England centre-backs, followed by Cahill. Then come Smalling and Jagielka, with Davies (if we are including him) trailing behind. I ranked all of the centre-backs in my (small, I admit) sample in the two reliability categories and took an average of those positions. I’ve also included two other young English defenders from my sample, Stones and Caulker, out of general interest:

England CB reliability rankingsAs you can see, Jones and Cahill are quite reliable, Smalling less so a bit of a distance away. Jagielka, judging by my figures are only about as reliable as the two youngsters with Davies lagging behind, representing the toss-up you face with some defenders – they’re more likely to make a tackle than other defenders, but they’re also more likely to make a mistake of some sort. It’s probably useful to look at these two categories separated (defensive 1/3 passing acting as a proxy for how error prone a player is, remember):

England CB reliability bare statsYou can see in both categories that Jagielka comes below one of the two young players that aren’t even in direct contention for a starting England place. You can also see Chris Smalling’s downfall: he might be a good defender, but he’s liable to have a lapse in concentration, perhaps, and misplace a pass – or make an error.

It’s these two categories, as well as his age, that convince me that Jagielka should be dropped in favour of either Jones or Smalling (I would personally choose Jones). Jagielka might make a fair number of defensive ‘moves’ but he’s also more likely to miss a ‘move’ and misplace a pass in his own 1/3, which is my (admittedly fairly crude) proxy for being error prone.

He’s also nearly 32. If you were going to play a 30 year-old, you could put Terry in the team. There is a definite sense that this England team under Roy Hodgson is building for the future. By the Euros in 2016, Jagielka will be 33, nearly 34, which is the age that the calls to move on Ferdinand and Terry began to grow and, let’s be honest, Jagielka is not as good as either of those players.

Given the shambles of 2010, when Matthew Upson (yes, I know he scored) was a starting centre-back – alongside many other examples from the world of football – failing to blood young players can be very costly. Cahill is 28 and so has a good four or so years left in him, by which time we will probably have a new youngster ready to take his place. Phil Jones is 22, Chris Smalling is 24; both are good defenders with stats similar to Cahill and Jagielka. Both will probably improve, which Cahill and Jagielka are unlikely to do.

You might point to the first two tables, where Jagielka comes above Cahill. However, you should bear this in mind. England are judged on performances at the major tournaments which, barring disaster, we qualify for almost by default, especially in recent years. Tournament football involves a much larger amount of luck than league football, as there is no time for the luck to equal itself out as it usually does over a 38-game league season. Therefore, a mistake is more likely to be costly. Bearing that in mind, you will probably want players, especially centre-backs, who are reliable. As the last two tables show, Jagielka is less reliable than Cahill and Jones in both categories and Smalling in one.

As I’ve previously mentioned, there’s also his age, which is not a factor that should be overlooked. With the England team in transition, it doesn’t make sense to keep a 31, almost 32 year-old centre back who isn’t world class in the starting XI. The short-term difference of replacing Jagielka with Jones/Smalling is unlikely to be noticeable and the long-term benefits of bedding one of those two in now will definitely be felt come 2016 and particularly 2018.

I thank you for getting to the end of this article as it has been a long one and I’m also interested in hearing what you have to think about this. My Twitter is @MRThompson9. As for England: there’s always next time, eh?

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Countdown to the World Cup #1

With just one day to go until the World Cup, we take a look at a goalkeeper who more than made his mark on the tournament.

#1 Iker Casillas Spain 2002, 2006, 2010

squad#1He may have been just 19 years old when he won the Champions League for the first time, but Iker Casillas is 33 now, and has been captain of his country for each of their triumphs since 2008.  Casillas makes saves when it matters, and the second round game against Chile in 2010 is a case in point.  Can St Iker become the first keeper captain to win back to back World Cups?

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Countdown to the World Cup #2

With just two days to go until the start of the World Cup, we look back at perhaps the saddest story in World Cup Football.

#2 Andres Escobar Colombia 1990, 1994

squad#2Colombia were well fancied going into USA 94.  They had reached the last 16 at Italia 90 before succumbing to the ethereal talents of Roger Milla.  Going into 1994, they had finished top of CONMEBOL qualifying, and had beaten Argentina 5-0 in Buenos Aires.  With the mighty perm as their star turn, Colombia were fancied to do well.  They were drawn in a group with Romania, USA and Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland.

At the time, a Gheorge Hagi inspired Romania were also strong contenders, and Colombia were ruthlessly brushed aside by the Carpathian Maradona.  Next up came the USA, enter Andres Escobar.  The centre half’s unwitting block was turned past the colourful Higuita, and the USA qualified for the knockout stages.  Colombia went on to beat Switzerland, but six days later Escobar was shot dead in his home city of Medellin.  He was 27 years old, had played 51 times for Colombia and scored one goal.

Humberto Castro Munoz was convicted of Escobar’s murder in 1995, but released from prison after serving just eleven years of an original 43 year sentence.

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Countdown to the World Cup #3

It’s now just three days until the World Cup Finals kick off in Brazil, and here we take a look at the man who wore the number 3 shirt at four different World Cup tournaments.

#3 Paolo Maldini Italy 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002

squad#3When Italy won the World Cup in 2006, my initial thoughts were of Paolo Maldini.  He had retired from international football  in 2002 after a golden-goal defeat to South Korea.  Maldini deserved to win a major tournament, having been denied so cruelly in 1994 and 2000.  He was still capable of playing in that 2006 side, or at least being in the squad, but it wasn’t to be.

Maldini made the all-star team at two World Cups (1990 and 1994) emulating his father Cesare’s achievements from 1962.  He retired from football having played 900 games for AC Milan over 24 years.

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Countdown to the World Cup #4

With four days to go we look at the unsung hero of the 1970 Brazil National team.

#4 Carlos Alberto Brazil 1970

squad#4Carlos Alberto Torres, to give him his full name, was the captain of the Brazil side that swept all before them in the 1970 World Cup.  He scored what is arguably the greatest of any World Cup final in that game, sweeping home from 15 yards to make the score 4-0.

Alberto is not forgotten in his country to this day, being one of the ambassadors for the World Cup, and it’s be a toss up between him and Moore for who would be our captain!

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Countdown to the World Cup #5

With just five days until the World Cup we take a look at one man who graced the World Cup tournament wearing the number 5 shirt.

#5 Franz Beckenbauer West Germany 1966, 1970, 1974

squad#5Der Kaiser needs no introduction at all.  His exemplary style of play and his marauding runs set Beckenbauer apart from his international counterparts.  Beckenbauer was captain of the winning side in 1974 as West Germany overcame the Cruyff inspired Dutch, and 16 years later he became the first ever man to do the double.  Beckenbauer steered his charges, including Klinsmann, Matthaus and Brehme, to lift the trophy as a manager.

Being a World Cup winner once, is a big deal, but doing it twice, in two separate capacities is nothing short of sensational!

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Countdown to the World Cup #6

Six days to go and I can barely contain myself, but this isn’t about me, it’s about a man that wore the Number 6 shirt at a World Cup Finals.  Thankfully, for history’s sake today’s player was English.

#6 Bobby Moore 1962, 1966, 1970

squad#6England’s captain fantastic was taken from this earth too soon.  Bobby Moore died of cancer in 1993, aged just 51 years old.  He was the first member of the 1966 World Cup winning side to pass away.  As captain, he was also the first Englishman to ever get his hands on the trophy.

Moore actually played in three World Cups for England, and whilst the middle one is most fondly remembered, Moore played in Chile in 1962 having made his debut in the pre-tournament friendly against Peru aged just 19 years old.  In 1970 he was arrested days before the finals started accused of theft.

He remains a national icon, and whilst many of us hope that somebody will share that mantle with Moore one day, the colour picture of Moore lifting the Jules Rimet trophy will never grow old!

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World Cup Merchandise Review

The World Cup will soon be upon us. Great memories come back to us from the past. The 0 goals scored by Wayne Rooney at the competition. The dignified site of Rivaldo falling to the floor, clutching his face after the ball was booted nowhere near his face. Diana Ross, taking a bad penalty and giving substandard writers material to write about every four years as they become ever more banteriffic. But enough about wannabe David Baddiels and Frank Skinners, let’s get some hardcore analysis going. This is the World Cup. The time for joking is over. The time is so serious that sports companies have all got their own hashtags. That’s right, each and every sports company has come up with its own special wheeze for the pinnacle of the summer.

Nike’s Iron Lung

As part of their “retro” campaign, Nike have launched their own version of a negative pressure ventilator. Although almost entirely replaced by the more modern and efficient devices and methods, such as positive pressure ventilation and biphasic cuirass ventilation, Nike decided they wanted to pay tribute “to the never say day attitude that we remember from the 1950s and 1960s era of widely available modern medicine, and in turn how that linked to the triumphs in the World Cup from teams showing similar resilience and progress.” With authentic features such as air pumps from vacuum cleaners, it also features a signature from each of the most famous names behind the contraption: Louis Agassiz Shaw, Jr and Philip Drinker, professors of industrial hygiene at Harvard School of Public Health.

Price: £100,000 in sizes 1-7, £150,000 in 8-13

Umbro’s crisps in plastic – not foil – packaging

Umbro have similarly gone for a nostalgic feature in order to make the most of the World Cup, and has shipped over 400,000 packets of Salt ‘n’ Vinegar Squares, in partnership with Walkers, to Rio. It is taking advantage of the fact that thousands of English fans have travelled to Brazil in order to support the team, and has recreated traditional British newsagents in over 500 locations across Brazil. Cunningly, Umbro decided against foil packaging, which is a modern innovation, and gone for the classic plastic envelope. A marketing analyst, Ched Horse, said: “Umbro have been very clever here. Although traditionally young people have been thought of as those with disposable income, the financial collapse means they have been largely disenfranchised, even with the recent signs of recovery. It is 40-something buy-to-let obsessives who have come out of the recession with their pockets lined, and they are the ones who can a) afford to go to Brazil and b) remember plastic packets. They will also have plenty more bigoted attitudes than young people, and therefore me more susceptible to nostalgia. This is a superbly cynical marketing ploy from Umbro – kudos to them.”

Price: £2 per packet

Le Coq Sportif’s underwhelming seaside French restaurant

For a few years now it has been apparent that the French have lost their way, utterly, with the concept of producing tasty food for affordable prices. You can still easily eat well at home, and also at the high-end restaurants, but increasingly the mid-range brasserie and seaside restaurant offers wan cooking for people who don’t care or know enough either way. That is now what can be considered typically French. Where they may have made a misstep, though, is that most French people between 20 and 30 now prefer Anglophile or American food, like fish and chips or burgers. Said Jean-Jacques Smoothie, French culinary researcher, “It’s an utter disgrace at this end of the market, and I’ve no idea why Le Coq Sportif have recreated such a ridiculous pop up concept in every country with a World Cup entrant, but, well, bof.”

Price: £20 for a meal, without wine and for a bit of plain chicken, and salad with that weirdly nice dressing.

Google Translator – Tactics Edition

Given that roughly 90% of foreigners travelling to the World Cup maintain their own tactics blog on the internet, yet don’t often venture out of their rooms in order to learn social skills, let alone Portuguese, Google have invented a new translation extension for their app. This will allow bloggers to take a photo of the match (live or on the television, as to make sure all users are able to engage) and then label each of the players with their correct tactical description – enganche, regista, velocista, false nine, false ten, inverted libero, inverted winger, central winger, box-to-box midfielder, shuttler, lonely ten, abstract three, four and a half, seven-and-a-half-around-the-corner-inverted-winger role, a wonderful human being and the best holding midfielder in Europe, the unapologetic racist and the goalkeeper-sweeper hybrid.

Price: your sense of fun, your friends and your life

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Countdown to the World #7

With just one week to go until the start of the World Cup, we take a look at a Number 7 who graced tournaments previous!

#7 Bebeto Brazil 1994


The sight of a gleeful 30 year old forward rocking his arms from side to side after scoring a goal in a World Cup Quarter Final will remain one of the more sentimental moments of World Cup history.  Bebeto’s wife had just given birth to their third child the day before Brazil took on Holland in the quarter finals.  The 1993 South American player of the year will remain a household name for that celebration alone, despite playing a part in two World Cup finals.

The baby that Bebeto was celebrating now has 4 caps for the Brazil U-20′s!!

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Countdown to the World Cup #8

With just eight days to go until the World Cup we look at one man who graced the number 8 shirt all the way back in 1954.

Sandor Kocsis Hungary 1954

squad#8The Magnificent Magyar’s had become the first foreign side to win at Wembley in 1953 and had created a brand of football that mesmerised all before them.  Whilst Ferenc Puskas is the most notable Hungarian, at the ’54 World Cup it was Kocsis who won the Golden Boot.  Kocsis owns the 4th highest scoring international goals record around (Puskas is No.2). He managed 76 goals in just 68 games for Hungary, and 11 of them cam at the World Cup, as he became the only man to score two hat-tricks at the same tournament.

Kocsis ended his career with Barcelona, and sadly passed away in 1979, aged just 49 years old.

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