Welcome to the greatest soap opera of 2021! The winner gets a starting spot in one of the most coveted tournaments in football while the losers get to sit on the sidelines sulking away under their tracksuits while putting up a brave face for the world.
Yep, we’re talking about the right back conundrum for England and Gareth Southgate at the upcoming European Championship.
When UEFA accounted that teams can fill up to 26 roster spots (it’s usually 23 in any international tournament), eyes lit up among the potentially fringe players. Most of us expected Southgate to add an extra striker (poor Patrick Bamford) or an extra body in midfield (given Jordan Henderson’s injury). What we didn’t expect was for the English manager to take 4 right backs along for the ride.
4 right backs!
That’s quite unheard of and naturally the debate began as soon as the announcement was made yesterday. That got me wondering – who actually deserves to start for England at Euro 2020? These are four excellent right-backs, each with his own unique skillset:
- Kieran Trippier (Atletico Madrid)
- Trent Alexander Arnold (Liverpool)
- Kyle Walker (Manchester City)
- Reece James (Chelsea)
So let’s do our thing and look at the underlying numbers behind each player’s performances this season. I have divided the analysis broadly into three categories:
- Defensive numbers
- Possession – how good are they with the ball at their feet?
Let’s dive into it!
Attacking/Creativity Numbers for England’s Right-Backs
Long time readers will be familiar with this category. We’ll look at a few metrics (both standard and advanced) to ascertain how each player does in comparison to the others.
Assists vs. Expected Assists (xA)
The simplest and most obvious one first – how does each player compare in terms of assists and expected assists (xA). xA is the likelihood of a pass being converted into a goal assist.
Want to guess which player stands out before you look at the visualization?
Not really a surprise, is it? Trent Alexander Arnold has had an up and down season but he’s been superb in the last 3 months. Like everyone else at Liverpool, he suffered a drop in form this season but picked up his numbers from February. And despite that initial stutter, he’s still head and shoulders above everyone else here.
The value under each player’s name is their expected assists per 90 minutes. It’s a nice way of getting everyone on the same scale (regardless of minutes and matches played). And even with that adjustment, Trent blows the other 3 right backs out of the water.
Why is Kyle Walker so low? Two reasons primarily:
- Pep Guardiola doesn’t use him as your typical right-back. He is often used either as a full back who cuts inside to make up the numbers in midfield (Joao Cancelo does this superbly) or as a centre back in a 5-man defence
- Most of Manchester City’s attacks happen through their vaunted midfield (Kevin De Bruyne, Gundogan, etc.) so Walker doesn’t get forward as much as he used to
And to be very honest, Southgate prefers using Walker as a centre back as well. England, as you’ll see at Euro 2020, often prefer to play 5 at the back, especially against tough opposition. So there’s a good chance we’ll see Walker playing there instead of at right back.
Shot Creating Actions (SCA) vs. Goal Creating Actions (GCA)
Again, long time readers will be familiar with these two advanced metrics. Here’s a quick recap of what they measure:
- GCA: Any offensive action directly leading to a goal, such as passes dribbles and drawing fouls
- SCA: Any offensive action directly leading to a shot, such as passes dribbles and drawing fouls
These two metrics fall under our “advanced analytics” section. Both GCA and SCA tell us how creative a player is in terms of all his actions on the pitch. We aren’t just looking at assists anymore – this is an amalgamation of all the things a player does that lead to a shot or a goal.
You would not be surprised to see who leads the pack:
Trent is again well ahead of the other three right-backs. This, of course, has a lot to do with the system their respective clubs play. Trippier, for example, plays for Atletico Madrid, a team notoriously defensive even against weaker opposition.
But when England need creativity, especially against teams that are sitting back, Trent is your man to try and break down that kind of defensive challenge.
Winner: Trent Alexander Arnold
Defensive Numbers for England’s Right Backs
Next, we come to the main reason behind why these players are playing in defence. How good (or bad) are their defensive numbers?
I want to emphasise here that measuring defensive performance is one of the most difficult things in sports, especially football. Clubs and media houses have access to a treasure trove of tracking data, which unfortunately is proprietary. We can only work with values that are available of sites like fbref.com.
So with that, let’s see what we can do about these defensive numbers.
I want to look at a few basic metrics to gauge how effective each right back is in terms of basic defensive responsibility.
How Effective is Their Press?
One of the most important factors in modern football is applying pressure on the opposition. How effectively you can do that dictates how much possession you will have in the game.
Here, Trent is just about the best right-back in terms of successful pressure percentage. Even though Chelsea’s Reece James applied the more pressure (359), Trent was more efficient in his press. This doesn’t mean James is a lesser player – remember, applying pressure requires your entire team to do it properly. Liverpool are masters of this. Chelsea, under Frank Lampard, were not.
Other Defensive Values
Unfortunately, there are not too many other metrics we can look at to measure defensive performance. I’ve picked out 3 others that are fairly common (but don’t really paint the full picture because of how broad and team dependent they are):
Anything stands out to you? One of the biggest, for me, is how poor Trent Alexander Arnold has been in aerial duels. He is far below the other 3 right backs. This is one of the biggest concerns with him – he’s often been critiqued for his poor defense (which is often overshadowed by his incredible attacking instincts).
If I’m Southgate, this is a tough call. Trent offers a LOT going forward but he can be targeted with long diagonal bars behind him. This can be mitigated if you play a 5-man defence so the centre back can cover for him. But if you’re playing a flat back 4, I might look at Trippier or James to start.
Winner: Inconclusive (depends on the match up).
How Good is Each Right-Back in Possession?
Finally, let’s talk about the most under-appreciated aspect of the modern full back – their poise and skill with the ball at their feet. No longer are right-backs limited to defending and putting crosses in! Now they are expected to play a major role in the attack – and no one demonstrates this better than Trent Alexander Arnold:
Trent, yet again, is quite ahead of the other three right-backs. You might be wondering what in the world are carries and progressive carries?
- Carries are the number of times a player touches the ball (Carries 1/3 are the number of times a player touched the ball in the final third of the pitch)
- Progressive carries are carries that move the ball forward at least 5 yards)
These two metrics tell us how attack-minded a player is. Again, this depends on the system the club is playing so that’s a key reason why Trippier’s numbers are so low. On the other hand, Trent is an elite ball player and hence has the freedom from Jurgen Klopp to carry the ball forward far more than any other full back.
The value beneath each player’s name in the visualization represents the number of touches in the attacking third of the pitch. It’s not even close!
Other Metrics to Look At
A few other metrics we can potentially look at are:
Not a lot to discern here. Trent’s numbers a little down here but that’s because he’s the most adventurous of the lot. He attempts far more dribbles than the other three.
Winner: Trent Alexander Arnold
And to think, Southgate was not even considering taking him to the Euros! I still feel Southgate will start Trippier because he trusts him more but if England want to make a deep run in this tournament, the handbrakes will have to come off at some point and the keys will have to be handed to Trent Alexander Arnold.