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.
Of 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.
The 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:
These 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:
As 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):
You 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?