The world of advanced soccer analytics is growing rapidly.
As a result, measuring the performances of players is well-beyond the dark ages of the past, wherein arguably the best way to numerically judge a footballer was through goals and assists.
Now, there are far more metrics for many other types of attributes on the field. For instance, the chance created statistic tracks how many passes an individual dishes out that lead directly to a shot. To have a high number of chances created is to be a visionary—someone who helps his team pepper the opposing goalkeeper.
Clearances are now tracked, as well. For a defender to rack up clearances is to consistently deflect service and danger from the opposition. Columbus Crew defender Chad Marshall leads MLS 2013 with 10 clearances per match. Ciaran Clark of Aston Villa led the English Premier League in clearances per match during the 2012-13 season with 11.3, just a tick more than Marshall.
There are plenty of other metrics, of course, that define the nuances a player brings to a field that might have been unnoticed or unnoted previously, for both defenders and attackers.
How about for midfielders, specifically, defensive midfielders? While there are no midfield-specific metrics used only to look at the No. 6 role (just as there are truly no position-specific metrics except for those used to measure goalkeepers), there are three critical metrics that have been created that are crucial to the roles and operations of a defensive midfielder.
First up, ball recoveries: to be adept at the skill of recovering the ball is to be a player will both a strong will to work without the ball, as well as superb soccer positioning. To win a ball recovery, a player must earn clear possession for his or her own team in open play.
Having a midfielder who racks up ball recoveries is so crucial because of where their ball recoveries generally take place—in the midfield third of the pitch. It is far easier to score when the ball is won higher up on the field than it is to build an attack from deep in the defensive third.
Similarly, goals are leaked if the ball is lost in such a dangerous area. It simply is very valuable to be able to start a possession as close to the opposition’s goal as possible.
That is why positioning is the rub when it comes to recoveries. To know when and where a ball will become free for the picking is a unique skill, and it is one that the best defensive midfielders in the world have in spades.
Much like the ball recovery, the interception is a key aspect of being a top-level defensive midfielder.
One of the main roles of the defensive midfielder is to protect the back four, specifically, the two center-backs. If an attack can be snuffed out before it reaches the back four, then the defensive midfielder has done his or her job effectively.
A great tool in shutting down those attacks is by intercepting a pass. To intercept a pass is to have two qualities—a quick first step and a higher soccer IQ. The first one is inherent, to cut out a pass before it reaches an intended target requires explosive speed. Obviously, no offensive player would play a pass if he or she thinks it will not be completed, hence the necessity for that strong first step.
The second quality is slightly less inherent in its definition.
The best attacking players in the world are always thinking about where they want to play the ball next. Their head is up, and they are consistently looking for not only their next available option but a second and third option after that.
The same goes for defenders. A quality defensive midfielder can read the eyes of an attacker, know where he or she wants to ping the ball and step into a passing lane without the passing player even knowing the defensive midfielder was hovering about.
Intercepting a pass allows for an attack to begin uninterrupted. Whereas a tackle is muddled; often scrappy and can see a ball land anywhere, an interception is clean. The defensive midfielder has the ball at his or her feet ready to immediately pick out the best pass to begin a possession
Once again, the interception is so important to a defensive midfielder because of where the player generally spends most of his or her time on the field—in the midfield third.
This is reason akin to why midfield third pass success rate is the final critical metric for defensive midfielders. The midfield third of the pitch is often the most crowded. Passing angles can be quickly shut down, and many teams in the modern game like to high press and try and win back the ball in the middle third of the field.
So having a defensive midfielder comfortable with the ball at his or her feet makes all the difference in being able to keep the ball and progress forward. And, perhaps more important, not lose the ball in a bad spot with a misplaced square pass.
With more and more time being spent developing analytics, there are sure to be increased initiatives to measure defensive midfielders. The footballing world will be a better place for it.
What do you think are the most important metrics to measure defensive midfielders?