Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The 2013/14 Premiership Defensive Midfielder Awards

'Ballon D'Or', 'Golden Boot', 'Player of the Year'?

Ah the humble defensive midfielder. So rarely understood, yet so crucially important.  Despite the wide acclaim placed in thinking circles upon Claude Makelele during the 'Galactico' era at Madrid, acclaim can be hard to come by for the defensive midfielder (indeed, Makelele himself, the forefather was sold to Chelsea.).
They don't win awards, they don't score many goals & they rarely get the biggest contracts.  Integral to success though? They sure are.  Anyway, I have ratings!  And they have a component that lends itself to defining midfielders by their traits and pigeonholing them into defensive and attacking roles.  As we are focusing on the defensive role, here is an explanation of their derivation:

The defensive element has been initially derived from 6 publically available metrics:
  • Interceptions
  • Tackles
  • Dispossessed
  • Turnovers
  • Dribbled by
  • Fouls
There is also a component derived from the passing stats; ball retention, lack of errors and accuracy over distance are all valuable traits a DM can use in their arsenal. Once data had been collected it's been weighted against league high performers to standardise & then put through a formula to create the figures seen here.

It aggregates, it summarises, it simplifies and it gives us lists.  And I like lists.

Anyway, an ideal defensive midfielder will contribute a high level of tackles, interceptions or both, will be rarely dispossessed, turn the ball over or be run past by opposition players & will commit minimal fouls.  It is appreciated that there are plenty of 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns', such as the value of positioning and organisation, that are hard to pick up within the measured attributes.  At this stage we have to work with what we've got.  As I suggested, the 'busier' a player is, the better they will probably rate.
These are particularly busy players, they often see more of the ball than anyone else on the pitch and include some of the prime 'tempo-setters' in the league.  Midfield defensive work is not a place for the shirker or the superstar with an ego.

(Having learnt a bit about the folly of devising ratings recently (rubbish!) i've decided to focus on what I consider the strengths of my own & their ability to identify how 'busy' a player is, particularly the defensive component.)

The arbitrary cut off point for qualifying is 1000 minutes.

Watercarrier of the Year:
This is a special category.  These guys do absolutely nothing except defensive work.  As such I have ranked them in order of the least amount of attacking contribution.  The average fan doesn't even know that they are on the pitch unless they have a silly hook like Fellaini's hair.
Nevertheless they are clearly vital as the man that tops the list is Javi Garcia, the unsung, ever-present defense marshaller of Man City's title-winning run in.  So defensively orientated is he, that he even spent time at centre back but for his feats in covering for Fernandinho's diminishing fitness, he's a deserving winner.
Interestingly 5 of the highest 10 rated players based on Defensive Power (DP) are on this list.  The trade off is huge: these players leave the attacking to others.

Young Defensive Midfielder of the Year:
Shoring up a midfield is not a young man's game; indeed of the top 40 rated players only five are 23 or under.  Presumably, defensive midfield is a position that requires learning; the enthusiasm and bullishness of youth are hard to harness to such a disciplined role.  Or a spot that players who may have lost some of their zip gravitate towards, leaving a lack of vacancies.  It's also a position that links up the team between attack and defence & is thus a role that often attracts leaders or influential types.
Here are the aspirant watercarriers:
So for a young player to be put in there and to perform well is a big achievement and Bentaleb and Ward-Prowse can be given great praise for playing and performing; maybe Ward-Prowse moreso because he's played all round the midfield and often as a substitute, yet still he posts good numbers. Either way both deserve praise for performing such duties at 19.  Wanyama was widely deemed to have had a mixed year after a reasonable fee was paid for him, but has clearly done just fine.
Is Ramsey a defensive midfielder? Course not. Fact is he has had an exceptional year all round and scores well for everything; this is a rare feat.

All-round Midfielder of the Year
A rare feat indeed as this table shows:
I should add that you don't qualify for this award without a high defensive component (+0.65) but in terms of statistical production both offensive & defensive, the top 4 here are away & clear.
  • Ramsey: does everything well
  • Cabaye: is a big loss to the league & PSG need to build around him if they're smart (maybe not?)
  • Gerrard: has delivered in a reigned in role after looking well in decline the year before; much credit due & especially for putting in a ton of minutes too.
  • Lampard: in c.15 years, to my mind Lampard has never looked like he does anything bar shoot quite accurately.  Plug the numbers in and it turns out he's doing it all.  I will never understand this.
In behind are an interesting breed of defensive midfielder; equally rare: Matic, Fernandinho, Dembele, Barry & Huddlestone all provide a controlling defensive presence but with a twist: the possibility of offensive production.  Very useful if you nominated DM has a shot, a shimmy or a lock-pick pass to call upon.

Defensive Midfielder of the Year
You got the highest number of DP points, and by some margin?  You deserve a prize Mile Jedinak, poster boy for statistical representations of defensive midfielders.  He also deserves praise because of sheer consistancy in the face of wildly varying coaching & team performances.  Under Holloway: great numbers, under Pulis: great numbers.  Throughout the year Jedinak tackled and read passes, kept things simple & was the heart of the Palace side:
Arteta and Carrick show why they're liked by their coaches here too.  Never the pure tackling DM: they are passers, an altogether different breed, yet equally important to a team's balance & tactical make-up. Also on this list are players that may have bypassed usual recognition:
  • Mikel seemed to be unfavoured by Mourinho & nobody expressed surprise when Matic was rehired, yet hits a strong number.
  • Delph received a lot of plaudits for his Villa performances, yet his teammate Westwood outperformed him slightly in attack and entirely in defense.
  • Cardiff's midfield was pretty dismal, but Medel was fine.
  • Lucas ended up as kind of first rotation in a good Liverpool side & though he maybe didn't provide a good fit in a side with defensive cover from Henderson and Gerrard, when he did play he was solid.
That concludes this year's awards, well done lads.

Appendix 1 :
As I suggested earlier, there aren't many young players in these roles.  Here's a plot of the ages of the Top 40 DMs in the league:
So there aren't too many older players either.  A reflection of the pace of the modern game? Maybe, but we can allot credit to Arteta, Carrick, Barry, Gerrard & Lampard (!?) once more.
The average age is a shade over 27 & that appears to be the optimum age, at least in this league, this year.

Appendix 2:
Frequency of clubs contributing to Top 40 players:
OK, not too much can be drawn from the raw facts here but scratch beneath the surface & we can ascertain a few interesting nuggets.  Southampton have the most players on the list; so they rotated their DMs? That's fine.  But the interesting aspect here, when matched up with the theory that Pochettino got the most out of his squad, is that anyone who played in Southampton's midfield did a good job (it applies also to his attacking midfielders, who all score well).  That suggests it's systemic & good coaching, which is a promising suggestion for Tottenham fans.  :)

Arsenal have 3, thanks to Flamini deputising Arteta & showing the worth of his resigning & SuperRam.  Chelsea also have three which is indicative of Mourinho's systems & the miracle of Flampard; but where's Ramires?  He spent the year alongside variously Matic & Mikel, but his numbers were below average; he doesn't make the list & nor are his attacking numbers compensatory.

Man Utd played all year with two DMs and poor Cleverley and Fellaini, so variously dismissed as 'shit' and a 'failure' actually provided adequate and solid defensive midfield work.  Somehow the wider media didn't realise that's what they'd been told to do, by Moyes, in Moyes' double 6 DM system. Poor lads.

Liverpool had Allen and Henderson bubbling under to go with Lucas & Gerrard, so no problems for them whilst Man City's vastly strong attacking midfield corps was ably assisted by just Fernandinho & Garcia; the relevance of these guys cannot be understated.

Appendix 3:
Not enough minutes:
Before destroying his knee in January 2013, Sandro was putting up Gerrard numbers.  He's returned this year, been in and out of favour, lacked a bit of discipline & been hampered by niggles.  He's still pro-rata the 9th most effective DM in the league.

Bridcutt, who arrived from Brighton in January has shown promise in limited minutes.

Appendix 4:
The Top 40 Defensive Midfielders in the league
Cos everyone likes looking at numbers? Am I right?


Thanks for reading!

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